Was it the CIA or the NSA who killed it? Privacy, that is. Or is social media to blame? The answer is that the intelligence community incubated companies like Google and Netscape. Then Google learned how to harvest human experience. Free apps in exchange for information. Personal information. It was 2013 when I was stunned that my students in my high school government class shrugged off what I thought was the news of the day, that we had become a total surveillance society: “Who cares, Mr. Broadie, we have nothing to hide.” Edward Snowden was the hero of the story. Since then we have become even more complacent. Each intimate moment is eagerly shared with the world.
As our connectivity becomes ever more entwined with every detail of our life, as our devices begin to blend invisibly with the real world, beyond phones and tablets, Amazon, Google, Facebook, et. al., become the co-pilots of our lives, as Soshana Zuboff phrased it in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The tiny moments of choice, when we buy something recommended by Amazon, or click on a targeted ad from Google, pull us along an arc away from free choice toward ubiquitous parental guidance. Now it seems only about shoes and toothpaste, but the data miners have already captured bigger fish. The miners of Brexit, and the election of Trump, may have found gold. Cambridge Analytica.
The founders of Google deny that their company is a creation of the CIA. It doesn’t quite matter. A grant from DARPA-NSF (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation) funded researchers at Stanford named Sergey Brin and Larry Page to develop what became Google Search. The original funding created something new, the “surveillance capitalism” pioneered by Google which has far surpassed its intelligence community origins. Nevertheless, these origins, as described by Jeff Nesbit in his 2017 Quartz article, lay bare the the necessary theft of privacy which motivated the creation of companies like Google, but especially Google:
Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of the origin story. Some of the research that led to Google’s ambitious creation was funded and coordinated by a research group established by the intelligence community to find ways to track individuals and groups online.https://qz.com/1145669/googles-true-origin-partly-lies-in-cia-and-nsa-research-grants-for-mass-surveillance/
Google Search, therefore, began with a dual purpose: to create an efficient way to search the world’s information, and also to glean information about the searchers. The second purpose, which uses human experience as its raw material to process and sell, has transformed the world’s economy in a way that rivals the industrial revolution. It has made Google a major power in its own right. Are the snooping spies still relevant in 2019?
The connection with the intelligence community seems to be overshadowed by the commercial success of Silicon Valley. Let’s not forget that the existence of Google and cookies is due to the post 9/11 world that made the protection of privacy secondary to national security. As the war on terror wore on we all became acclimated to the constant invasions of our privacy and dignity. How, for instance would today’s Google react to the following situation? In the Google of 2004, James Bamford, in his book The Shadow Factory, writes about how Google executives worried about how the NSA may demand a “pipeline” giving them access to all of Google’s emails and search data:
So they [the founders Brin and Page] wanted to find ways to make it so that the NSA couldn’t benefit from the stored data but Google could. And by the time I [former Google executive] left they hadn’t found that boundary…James Bamford, The Shadow Factory, p.268. Anchor Books. 2008
Sounds like Google is standing up for us little guys, right? Tim Johnson, writing for McClatchy in June 2018, says:
A funny thing has happened to Google and Amazon on their path toward high-tech success: They have become crucial cogs in the U.S. national security establishment.
Both companies are expanding teams of employees with security clearances to work on projects that include deploying artificial intelligence and building digital “clouds” to offering law enforcement facial recognition tools that can even read the mood of people caught on camera.
Google’s Project Maven is building actionable military surveillance, meaning action by lethal drones. Amazon is building a $10 billion secure cloud for the Department of Defense.
This is larger than the Google CIA connection of yesteryear. As we move deeper into a surveillance capitalist economy, as described by Shoshana Zuboff, the melding of the Tech Giants with the defense establishment presents us with the unavoidable conclusion that Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial establishment has not evaporated, but is reaching ever deeper under our skins and into our minds. Big Tech and Big Government will be making the world safe for …? Will resistance be possible, if we, as a species, ever have need of it?