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Yasha Levine, The Guardian:

The internet surrounds us. It mediates modern life, like a giant, unseen blob that engulfs the modern world. There is no escape, and, as Larry Page and Sergey Brin so astutely understood when they launched Google in 1998, everything that people do online leaves a trail of data. If saved and used correctly, these traces make up a goldmine of information full of insights into people on a personal level as well as a valuable read on larger cultural, economic and political trends.

Google, Apple and Facebook know when a woman visits an abortion clinic, even if she tells no one else: the GPS coordinates on the phone don’t lie. One-night stands and extramarital affairs are a cinch to figure out: two smartphones that never met before suddenly cross paths in a bar and then make their way to an apartment across town, stay together overnight, and part in the morning.

They know us intimately, even the things that we hide from those closest to us. In our modern internet ecosystem, this kind of private surveillance is the norm. It is as unnoticed and unremarkable as the air we breathe. But even in this advanced, data-hungry environment, in terms of sheer scope and ubiquity, Google reigns supreme.

As the internet expanded, Google grew along with it. No matter what service it deployed or what market it entered, surveillance and prediction were cooked into the business.

Google has pioneered a whole new type of business transaction. Instead of paying for its services with money, people pay with their data. And the services it offers to consumers are just the lures, used to grab people’s data and dominate their attention – attention that is contracted out to advertisers. Google has used data to grow its empire.

What does Google know? What can it guess? Well, it seems just about everything. “One of the things that eventually happens … is that we don’t need you to type at all,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, said in a moment of candour in 2010. “Because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.” He later added: “One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that.”

It is a scary thought, considering that Google is no longer a cute startup but a powerful global corporation with its own political agenda and a mission to maximise profits for shareholders. Imagine if Philip Morris, Goldman Sachs or a military contractor like Lockheed Martin had this kind of access.

Even as Google grew to dominate the consumer internet, a second side of the company emerged, one that rarely got much notice: Google the government contractor. As it turns out, the same platforms and services that Google deploys to monitor people’s lives and grab their data could be put to use running huge swaths of the US government, including the military, spy agencies, police departments and schools. The key to this transformation was a small startup now known as Google Earth.

In 2003, a San Francisco company called Keyhole Incorporated was on the ropes. With a name recalling the CIA’s secret 1960s “Keyhole” spy satellite programme, the company had been launched two years earlier as a spinoff from a videogame outfit.

In 1999, at the peak of the dot-com boom, the CIA had launched In-Q-Tel, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund whose mission was to invest in start-ups that aligned with the agency’s intelligence needs. Keyhole seemed a perfect fit.

The CIA poured an unknown amount of money into Keyhole. The investment was finalised in early 2003, and it was made in partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a major intelligence organisation with 14,500 employees and a $5bn budget, whose job was to deliver satellite-based intelligence to the CIA and the Pentagon. Known as the NGA, the spy agency’s motto was: “Know the Earth … Show the Way … Understand the World.”

The CIA and NGA were not just investors; they were also clients, and they involved themselves in customising Keyhole’s virtual map product to meet their own needs.

Military commanders weren’t the only ones who liked Keyhole. So did Sergey Brin. He liked it so much that he insisted on personally demoing the app for Google executives. According to an account published in Wired, he barged in on a company meeting, punched in the address of every person present, and used the programme to virtually fly over their homes.

In 2004, the same year Google went public, Brin and Page bought the company outright, CIA investors and all. They then absorbed the company into Google’s growing internet applications platform. Keyhole was reborn as Google Earth.

When Google bought Keyhole, it also acquired an In-Q-Tel executive named Rob Painter, who came with deep connections to the world of intelligence and military contracting, including US Special Operations, the CIA and major defence firms, among them Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. At Google, Painter was planted in a new dedicated sales and lobbying division called Google Federal, located in Reston, Virginia, a short drive from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley. His job was to help Google grab a slice of the lucrative military-intelligence contracting market. Or, as Painter described in contractor-bureaucratese, “evangelising and implementing Google Enterprise solutions for a host of users across the intelligence and defence communities”.

Google had closed a few previous deals with intelligence agencies. In 2003, it scored a $2.1m (£1.7m) contract to outfit the National Security Agency (NSA) with a customised search solution that could scan and recognise millions of documents in 24 languages, including on-call tech support in case anything went wrong. In 2004, Google landed a search contract with the CIA. The value of the deal isn’t known, but the agency did ask Google’s permission to customise the CIA’s internal Google search page by placing the CIA’s seal in one of the Google logo’s Os. “I told our sales rep to give them the OK if they promised not to tell anyone. I didn’t want it spooking privacy advocates,” wrote Douglas Edwards, Google’s first director of marketing and brand management, in his 2011 book I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.

In 2006, Google Federal went on a hiring spree, snapping up managers and salespeople from the army, air force, CIA, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. It beefed up its lobbying muscle and assembled a team of Democratic and Republican operatives.

Even as it expanded into a transnational multi-billion-dollar corporation, Google had managed to retain its geekily innocent “don’t be evil” image. So while Google’s PR team did its best to keep the company wrapped in a false aura of altruism, company executives pursued an aggressive strategy to become the Lockheed Martin of the internet age. “We’re functionally more than tripling the team each year,” Painter said in 2008. It was true.

In 2007, it partnered with Lockheed Martin to design a visual intelligence system for the NGA that displayed US military bases in Iraq and marked out Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad – important information for a region that had experienced a bloody sectarian insurgency and ethnic cleansing campaign between the two groups. In 2008, Google won a contract to run the servers and search technology that powered the CIA’s Intellipedia, an intelligence database modelled after Wikipedia that was collaboratively edited by the NSA, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies. Not long after that, Google contracted with the US army to equip 50,000 soldiers with a customised suite of mobile Google services.

In 2010, as a sign of just how deeply Google had integrated with US intelligence agencies, it won an exclusive, no-bid $27m contract to provide the NGA with “geospatial visualisation services”, effectively making the company the “eyes” of America’s defence and intelligence apparatus.

Google has been tight-lipped about the details and scope of its contracting business. It does not list this revenue in a separate column in quarterly earnings reports to investors, nor does it provide the sum to reporters. But an analysis of the federal contracting data-base maintained by the US government, combined with information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests and published reports on the company’s military work, reveals that Google has been doing brisk business selling Google Search, Google Earth and Google Enterprise (now known as G Suite) products to just about every major military and intelligence agency, including the state department. Sometimes Google sells directly to the government, but it also works with established contractors like Lockheed Martin and Saic (Science Applications International Corporation), a California-based intelligence mega-contractor which has so many former NSA employees working for it that it is known in the business as “NSA West”.

Google didn’t just work with intelligence and military agencies, but also sought to penetrate every level of society, including civilian federal agencies, cities, states, local police departments, emergency responders, hospitals, public schools and all sorts of companies and nonprofits. In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that researches weather and the environment, switched over to Google. In 2014, the city of Boston deployed Google to run the information infrastructure for its 76,000 employees – from police officers to teachers – and even migrated its old emails to the Google cloud. The Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration use Google Earth and Gmail.

In 2016, New York City tapped Google to install and run free wifi stations across the city. California, Nevada and Iowa, meanwhile, depend on Google for cloud computing platforms that predict and catch welfare fraud. Meanwhile, Google mediates the education of more than half of America’s public school students.

Indeed, Google’s size and ambition make it more than a simple contractor. It is frequently an equal partner that works side by side with government agencies, using its resources and commercial dominance to bring companies with heavy military funding to market. In 2008, a private spy satellite called GeoEye-1 was launched in partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Google’s logo was on the launch rocket and the company secured exclusive use of the satellite’s data for use in its online mapping. Google also bought Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that made experimental robotic pack mules for the military, only to sell it off after the Pentagon determined it would not be putting these robots into active use. It has invested $100m in CrowdStrike, a major military and intelligence cyber defence contractor that, among other things, led the investigation into the alleged 2016 Russian government hacks of the Democratic National Committee. And it also runs Jigsaw, a hybrid thinktank/technology incubator aimed at leveraging internet technology to solve thorny foreign policy problems – everything from terrorism to censorship and cyberwarfare.

Jigsaw seemed to blur the line between public and corporate diplomacy, and at least one former state department official accused it of fomenting regime change in the Middle East. “Google is getting [White House] and state department support and air cover. In reality, they are doing things the CIA cannot do,” wrote Fred Burton, an executive at global intelligence platform Stratfor and a former intelligence agent at the security branch of the state department.

But Google rejected the claims of its critics. “We’re not engaged in regime change,” Eric Schmidt told Wired. “We don’t do that stuff. But if it turns out that empowering citizens with smartphones and information causes changes in their country … you know, that’s probably a good thing, don’t you think?”

Paul Ciano

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