In early October, many Google users were surprised to see a different kind of greeting at the top of their Gmail inbox. “Warning: We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer.” The attacks appeared to be coming from the Middle East.
Google started out as two grad students in a garage with an algorithm and a dream. Their idealistic, “don’t be evil” strapline — not quite the same as “do the right thing” — underscored a corporate moralism akin to ideology. Google wouldn’t just be another mainframe money-grubbing machine accumulating power without responsibility. They would avoid predatory capitalism and occasionally act for the common weal. Google has become a multifaceted corporation and somewhere down the line, it transitioned from a company into an information state.
By 2006, Google had hung out its corporate shingle in China, a place of vast economic promise; also the place where techno-utopians go to die. When China isn’t busy strip-mining Western technology, it is even busier stacking the deck in favour of the local competition. That Google didn’t realise this going in is shocking. And that Google actually thought technology, specifically its technology, would somehow benefit democratic development in China is even more shocking. There has never been a quantifiable causal nexus between economic and political development in the PRC. And technology is not an instrument of enlightenment in that country. It’s an organ of control.
A series of high-level hires from the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard and the US state department told Google everything they wanted to hear. Yes, you’ll make billions. Yes, technology will change everything. No, no and no. And then Google mostly closed up shop and left mainland China with its tail between its legs. It also got hacked.
In 2010, Google’s servers were compromised by you-know-who. Thousands of Chinese and Tibetan activists were successfully targeted, and Google itself took a hit. Along with other Western IT firms, Google had vast amounts of advanced research and intellectual property stolen. That’s when Google went over to the dark side.
Although Google had been in talks of an undisclosed nature with the National Security Agency (NSA) before its network was compromised, the Chinese breach fast-tracked the relationship. Almost immediately, the NSA was brought in to harden Google’s digital perimeter. The NSA, while generally regarded as the most technically adept entity on earth and a natural choice to secure Google’s defences, is also known to take a casual view of personal privacy and judicial oversight. The courts were assailed with requests for the NSA and Google to disclose the nature of their relationship. To this day, both organisations refuse to comment other than making perfunctory noises about national security, and “just trust us”.
There have been other troubling developments. Google has become cosy with the CIA, the state department and the White House, mostly in service of executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s political ambitions. At this point Google is so intertwined with Washington, you’d need a Venn diagram just to keep up. It gets worse. Untroubled by Google’s hubris in China, Schmidt recruited Jared Cohen, a state department wunderkind advisor to Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Cohen is widely credited as an architect of 21st century statecraft, a frappuccino diplomacy practised by Americans who’ve taken one too many hits from the social media bong.
Also in the current mix of Google as government, or information state, or whatever it is they’re trying to be over there, is Regina Dugan, former director of the Pentagon’s premier research lab. Dugan quit in March 2012 to take a senior executive position at Google. At one point Schmidt was surrounded by geeks. Now he’s hip deep in policy wonks, Washington insiders and information activists. Just what one wants to advise on Google’s latest market target, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
While it would be unfair to suggest there is no difference between Google and the US government, certain overlaps are cause for concern. Partnering with the NSA is just one of them. And as Google commits to market development in the MENA, one wonders what other aspirations the infolith has for the region. It’s one thing to delude oneself about the political benefits of technology in emerging networks. It’s quite another to bungle about in a volatile region just because one can.
Immediately after Google flamed out in China, it made a beeline for the MENA with a new team of political operators in place. The official line is that the region represents a great market opportunity for the company. The MENA also needs to be listened to in its own way. One hopes Google will listen, and refrain from doing too much evil as it dabbles in the business of politics.
Ruffin is the pseudonym for a member of Cult of the Dead Cow publishing and hacktivist collective