In June 2007, Privacy International, a U.K.-based privacy rights watchdog, cited Google as the worst privacy offender among 23 online companies, ranking the ‘Don’t Be Evil’ people below Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn, Facebook and AOL.
According to the report, no other company was ‘coming close to achieving [Google’s] status as an endemic threat to privacy’. What most disturbed the authors was Google’s ‘increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user’s life and lifestyle choices’. The result: ‘the most onerous privacy environment on the Internet’.
Indeed, Google now controls an estimated 70 per cent of the online search engine market, but its deep-drilling of user information – where we surf, whom we e-mail, what blogs we post, what pictures we share, what maps we look at, what news we read – extends far beyond the search feature to encompass the kind of ‘total information awareness’ that privacy activists feared at the hands of the Bush Jr administration’s much-maligned Total Information Awareness program.
Kevin Bankston, a privacy expert and attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group engaged in questions of privacy, free speech, and intellectual property in the digital age, warns of the possibilities. “In all of human history,” he says, “few if any single entities, other than the National Security Agency, have ever possessed such a hoard of sensitive data about so many people”.
This is the sort of thing that should make the intelligence agencies, says Bankston, “drool with anticipation”. And drooling they are. Stephen Arnold, an IT expert who formerly worked at the defense and intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and who once consulted for Google, addressed this in a speech before a conference of current and former intelligence officials in Washington, D.C., in January 2006.
According to an audio recording in our possession, he reported Google was increasingly sought out by the U.S. intelligence services because click-stream data – and everything else Google archives – “is a tremendous opportunity for the intelligence community.” Google, he said, “has figured out everything there is to know about data-collection.” The relationship with the government had become intimate enough, Arnold said, that at least three officers from “an unnamed intelligence agency” had been posted at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. What they are doing there, Arnold did not reveal.
“We don’t comment on rumor or speculation”, said Google spokesperson Christine Chen. When asked separately how many former intelligence agency officials work at Google, she responded, “We don’t release personnel information”.
The conference, under the aegis of the Open Source Solutions Network, was hosted and organised by Robert David Steele, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who left the agency 20 years ago and is now the founder and CEO of Open Source Solutions Network Inc., otherwise known as OSS.Net, an educational corporation that has worked with more than 50 governments to “advance the use of open source intelligence.” Steele considered Arnold’s item to be a bombshell. US intel was now seated in the heart of the ‘Googleplex’, learning all it could from the masters in the private sector.
Among Google’s critics, Steele who, since leaving the CIA, has spent 20 years promoting the digital commons, is about as fierce as they come. “Google would have been an absolutely precious gift to humanity”. he says. “But Google is positioning itself to take over the digital commons. I personally have resolved that unless Google comes clean with the public, the company is now evil”. The question today is whether Google, in fact, will be forced to change its ways – and whether Congress and the intelligence agencies want it to.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Cloud Panopticon: Google, Cloud Computing and the Surveillance-Industrial-Complex’.