The Psychological Dark Side of Gmail
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This article first appeared on PandoDaily.
“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
“Your digital identity will live forever… because there’s no delete button.” —Eric Schmidt
Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley recently announced that they had gotten together to form a new forward-thinking organization dedicated to promoting government surveillance reform in the name of “free expression” and “privacy.”
The charade should have been laughed at and mocked — after all, these same companies feed on privacy for profit, and unfettered surveillance is their stock and trade. Instead, it was met with cheers and fanfare from reporters and privacy and tech experts alike. “Finally!” people cried, Silicon Valley has grown up and matured enough to help society tackle the biggest problem of our age: the runaway power of the modern surveillance state.
The Guardian described the tech companies’ plan as “radical,” and predicted it would “end many of the current programs through which governments spy on citizens at home and abroad.” Laura W. Murphy, Director of ACLU’s DC Legislative Office, published an impassioned blog post praising tech giants for urging President Barack Obama and Congress to enact comprehensive reform of government surveillance. Silicon Valley booster Jeff Jarvis could hardly contain his glee. “Bravo,” he yelped. “The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.” And then added:
"Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America."
But while leading tech and privacy experts like Jarvis slobber over Silicon Valley megacorps and praise their heroic stand against oppressive government surveillance, most still don’t seem to mind that these same tech billionaires run vast private sector surveillance operations of their own. They vacuum up private information and use it to compile detailed dossiers on hundreds of millions of people around the world — and that’s on top of their work colluding and contracting with government intelligence agencies.
If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s not hard to see that Silicon Valley is heavily engaged in for-profit surveillance, and that it dwarfs anything being run by the NSA.
I recently wrote about Google’s Street View program, and how after a series of investigations in the US and Europe, we learned that Google had used its Street View cars to carry out a covert — and certainly illegal — espionage operation on a global scale, siphoning loads of personally identifiable data from people’s Wi-Fi connections all across the world. Emails, medical records, love notes, passwords, the whole works — anything that wasn’t encrypted was fair game. It was all part of the original program design: Google had equipped its Street View cars with surveillance gear designed to intercept and vacuum up all the wireless network communication data that crossed their path. An FCC investigation showing that the company knowingly deployed Street View’s surveillance program, and then had analyzed and integrated the data that it had intercepted.
Most disturbingly, when its Street View surveillance program was uncovered by regulators, Google pulled every crisis management trick in the book to confuse investors, dodge questions, avoid scrutiny, and prevent the public from finding out the truth. The company’s behavior got so bad that the FCC fined it for obstruction of justice.
The investigation in Street View uncovered a dark side to Google. But as alarming as it was, Google’s Street View wiretapping scheme was just a tiny experimental program compared Google’s bread and butter: a massive surveillance operation that intercepts and analyzes terabytes of global Internet traffic every day, and then uses that data to build and update complex psychological profiles on hundreds of millions of people all over the world — all of it in real time. You’ve heard about this program. You probably interact with it every day. You call it Gmail.