The following is an excerpt from Yasha Levine's ongoing investigative project, Surveillance Valley, which you can help support on KickStarter.
Oakland, California: On February 18, 2014, several hundred privacy, labor, civil rights activists packed Oakland’s city hall.
It was a rowdy crowd, and there was a heavy police presence. The people were there to protest the construction of a citywide surveillance center that would turn a firehouse in downtown Oakland into a high-tech intelligence hub straight out of Mission Impossible — a federally funded project that linking up real time audio and video feeds from thousands of sensors across the city into one high-tech control hub, where analysts could pipe the data through face recognition software and enrich its intelligence with data coming in from local, state and federal government and law enforcement agencies.
Residents’ anger at the fusion surveillance center was intensified by a set of internal documents showing that city officials were more interested in using the surveillance center monitor political protests rather than fighting crime: keeping tabs on activists, monitoring non-violent political protests and tracking union organizing that might shut down the Port of Oakland. It was an incendiary find — especially in Oakland, a city with a large marginalized black population, a strong union presence and a long, ugly history of police brutality aimed at minority groups and political activists.
But buried deep in the thousands of pages of planning documents was another disturbing detail. Emails that showed Google — the largest and most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley — was among several other defense contractors vying for a piece of Oakland’s $11 million surveillance contract.
What was Google doing there? What could a company known for superior search and cute doodles offer a controversial surveillance center?
Turns out, a lot.
Most people still think that Google is one of the good guys on the Internet, that it’s a goofy company that aims only to provide the best and coolest tools on the web — from search, to cool maps to endless email space to amazing mobile maps and a powerful replacement for Microsoft Office.
But the free Google services and apps that we interact with on a daily basis aren’t the company’s main product. They are the harvesting machines that dig up and process the stuff that Google really sells: for-profit intelligence.
Google isn’t a traditional Internet service company. It isn’t even an advertising company. Google is a whole new type of beast that runs on a totally new type of tech business model.
Google is a global for-profit surveillance corporation — a company that tries to funnel as much user activity in the real and online world through its services in order to track, analyze, and profile us: It tracks as much of our daily lives as possible: who we are, what we do, what we like, where we go, who we talk to, what we think about, what we’re interested in. All those things are seized, packaged, commodified, and sold on the market.
It's an amazingly profitable activity that takes bits and pieces and the most intimate detritus of our private lives — something that never really had any commercial value and turns it into billions of pure profit. It's like turning rocks and gravel into gold. And it nets Google nearly $20 billion in annual profits.
At this point, most of the business comes from matching the right ad to the right pair of eyeballs at jus the right time. But who knows how the massive database Google’s compiling on all of us will be used in the future?
What kind of intel does Google compile on us? The company is very secretive about that info. But here are a few data points that could go into its user profiles, gleaned from two patents Google filed a decade ago, prior to launching its Gmail service:
- Concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments
- The content of websites that users have visited
- Demographic information—including income, sex, race, marital status
- Geographic information
- Psychographic information—personality type, values, attitudes, interests
- Previous searches users have made
- Information about documents users viewed and edited
- Browsing activity
- Previous purchases
If Google's creepy for-profit surveillance for you, then there are Google's deep ties to the NSA and the U.S. military-surveillance complex.
Googles ties to military-intelligence industrial complex go back to 1990s, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still run of the mill computer science PhD students at Stanford. Their research into web search and indexing, which they spun off into a private company in 1998, was part of a Stanford project partially funded by DARPA, a research and development appendage to the DoD. The two nerdy inventors even gave the DoD’s research arm a shout out in a 1998 paper that outlined Google’s search and indexing methodology.
Computer science research is frequently funded with military and defense money, of course. But Google’s ties to the military-intelligence world didn’t end after they Brin and Page privatized their research and moved their startup operation off campus. If anything, the relationship deepened and got more intimate after they left Stanford.
Google's intel and military contracting started with custom search contracts with the CIA and NSA in the early 2000s (the CIA even had a customized Google's logo on its Google-powered intranet search page) and hit a much more series phase in 2004, with Google’s acquisition of a tiny and unknown 3-D mapping startup called Keyhole.
Google purchased the company in 2004 for an undisclosed sum and immediately folded the company’s mapping technology into what later became known as Google Earth. The acquisition would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for one tiny detail: Keyhole was part owned by the CIA and NSA.
A year before Google bought the company, it had received a substantial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital fund run by the CIA on behalf of the military and intelligence community. The exact amount that In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified, but its new spook backers didn’t sit idle — they became intimately involvement in running the company. This was no secret. The CIA publicly discussed its hands-on approach, bragging in its promotional materials that the agency “worked closely with other Intelligence Community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs.” And the CIA guys worked fast: Just a few weeks after In-Q-Tel invested in Keyhole, an NGA official bragged that its technology was already being deployed by the Pentagon to prepare U.S. forces for the invasion of Iraq.
This close collaboration between Keyhole/Google Earth and the U.S. National Security State continues today.
Over the years, Google's reach expanded to include just about every major intel and law enforcement agency in the United States. Today, Google technology enhance the surveillance capabilities of the NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA, NGA, the U.S Navy and Army, and just about every wing of the DoD.
If you take a look at the roster of Google's DC office — Google Federal — you'll see the list jammed with names of former spooks, high-level intelligence officials and assorted revolving door military contractors: US Army, Air Force Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Director of National Intelligence, USAID, SAIC, Lockheed.
Take the CV of Michele R. Weslander Quaid, Google’s Chief Technology Officer of Public Sector and “Innovation Evangelist."
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Weslander Quaid felt a patriotic duty to help fight the War on Terror. So she quit her private sector job at a CIA contractor called Scitor Corporation and joined the official world of US government intelligence. She quickly rose through the ranks, serving in executive positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (sister agency to the NSA), National Reconnaissance Office and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She toured combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to see the tech needs of the military first-hand. All throughout her intel career, she championed a “startup” mentality and the benefits of cloud-based services. Which made her a perfect candidate to head up Google's federal contractor-lobbying operation...
In the past few years, Google has aggressively intensified its campaign to grab a bigger slice of the insanely lucrative military-intelligence contracting market.
It’s been targeting big and juicy federal agencies — the U.S. Naval Academy signed up for Google Apps, the U.S. Army tapped Google Apps for a pilot program involving 50,000 DoD personnel, Idaho’s nuclear lab went Google, the U.S. Department of the Interior switched to Gmail, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy went with Google, too. Google even entered into a partnership with the NGA, a sister agency to NSA to launch its very own spy satellite called GeoEye-1 — a spy satellite that it would share with the U.S. military intelligence apparatus.
In some cases, Google sells its wares to government intel agencies directly — like it did with the NSA and NGA. It’s also been taking the role of subcontractor: selling its tech by partnering with established military contractors and privatized surveillance firms like SAIC, Lockheed and smaller boutique outfits like the Blackwater-connected merc outfit called Blackbird.
In short: Google’s showing itself willing to do just about anything it can to more effectively hitch itself to America’s military-intelligence-industrial complex.
Google has also been hard-selling its intel technology to smaller local and state government agencies as well — which is why Google was trying to bid on a police surveillance center in Oakland, California.
A company that monopolizes huge swaths of the Internet, makes billions by surveilling and profiling its users and is very deliberately angling to become the Lockheed-Martin of the Internet Age?
Should we be so trusting towards Google? And is it so wise for us to hand over the contents of our private lives — without demanding any control or oversight or care?
Excerpted from Yasha Levine's ongoing investigative project, Surveillance Valley, which you can help support on KickStarter.