Two former Microsoft employees are suing the company claiming they developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being forced to watch 'horrific images' and online videos of child pornography, murder and bestiality as part of their job.
The ex-staff members argue that the company did not prepare them or offer them adequate psychological support to deal with the stresses of viewing the disturbing and horrific content online.
Henry Soto and Greg Blauert worked for Microsoft's Online Safety Team which is responsible for complying with 2008 federal legislation that requires technology companies to report child abuse images, violent videos and other crimes to the authorities.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington State on behalf of the ex-employees and their families in December and publicly reported this week, accused Microsoft of "negligent infliction of emotional distress".
After the unit was formed, Soto said he was "involuntarily transferred" to the Only Safety Team in 2008 where he and other team members had "God like" status, being able to view any customer's communications, the complaint said.
However, the lawsuit claims Soto had "limited information" about his new position. Due to company policy, Soto claims he was forced to stay in the position for 18 months.
"He did not understand the level of activity in the following areas: assisting law enforcement efforts to break up significant crime rings, the mob, the triad, and other violent groups, reviewing photos and video requiring him to witness horrible brutality, murder, indescribable sexual assaults, videos of humans dying and, in general, videos and photographs designed to entertain the most twisted and sick minded people in the world," the complaint reads.
Soto said the disturbing content took a "significant toll" on him personally and had suffered from sleep disturbance, nightmares and "an internal video screen in his head". He also said he could see disturbing images and experienced "irritability, increased startle, anticipatory anxiety and was easily distractible". After viewing a horrific video of a little girl being "indescribably abused and killed", he began experiencing "auditory hallucinations".
He said he was embarrassed by his symptoms that progressed over time to include panic attacks in public, disassociation, depression, visual hallucinations, and an "inability to be around computers or young children" including his son at times, because "it would trigger memories of horribly violent acts against children that he had witnessed".
Blauert, who was hired as a full-time employee in June 2012, was required to "review thousands of images of child pornography, adult pornography and bestiality that graphically depicted the violence and depravity of the perpetrators".
After becoming noticeably withdrawn both at work and at home, his office supervisors authorised that he and others could leave work early when they broke down or were overwhelmed by the trauma associated with monitoring and viewing the content.
While Microsoft did create a "wellness programme" and offered a counselor, the plaintiffs argued that these services were insufficient and ineffective to help its employees deal with the "psychologically toxic and harmful" content they viewed on a daily basis and the "negative health consequences" associated with the position's duties.
Some of the remedies advised by programme authorities to Blauert included limiting the employees' exposure to depictions, taking walks and smoke breaks and playing video games to distract him and manage his symptoms, the complaint said. After some time, he was allegedly given a poor evaluation "for a lack of production and too much time playing video games".
In 2013, he suffered a mental and physical breakdown and experienced "psychomotor retardation, intractable crying, insomnia, anxiety and PTSD". Blauert is still in treatment for "acute and debilitating PTSD" but continues to encounter "triggers" everyday including "profiling" adults as potential abusers, fearing for the safety of his children and others he meets and avoiding child-related content.
"As a result of these triggers, which are ubiquitous, Mr Blauert has been unable to return to work," the lawsuit notes. The lawsuit also claims that both men were denied workers' compensation because their PTSD was not an "occupational disease".
The plaintiffs are seeking damages and offered suggestions and reforms to help make the job less harmful such as mandatory rotations out of the programme, pre-vacation vacations, mandatory weekly meetings with specially trained psychologists and a spousal wellness programme.
"Throughout their careers at Microsoft, both plaintiffs were instrumental in saving children's lives and providing evidence for successful prosecutions," the lawsuit reads, but suffered a serious psychological price to pay in the process.
Microsoft disputes lawsuit
In a statement to the BBC, Microsoft said it disputed the claims and takes seriously "its responsibility to remove and report imagery of child sexual exploitation and abuse being shared on its services, as well as the health and resiliency of the employees who do this important work".
"Microsoft applies industry-leading technology to help detect and classify illegal imagery of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft Services," the company said. After an illegal image is reported or "spotted" by automated software, a human employee is required to view the material and pass it on to the authorities.
"This work is difficult, but critically important to a safer and more trusted internet," the company continued. "Microsoft works with the input of our employees, mental health professionals, and the latest research on robust wellness and resilience programmes to ensure those who handle this material have the resources and support they need, including an individual wellness plan. We view it as a process, always learning and applying the newest research about what we can do to help support our employees even more."