How Google helps state agencies snoop the planet

Google is 20 years old. In those 20 years, it’s risen to control half of all online ads, access a billion email accounts via Gmail, mediate 25% of all internet traffic in North America, supply the OS to 82% of smartphones, and perform 80% of web searches. It’s the second most valuable company in the world, lagging behind only Apple.

That, Congressman Kevin McCarthy said during the Google congressional hearings, ‘is power.’


In a way, we’re all aware of Google’s tendrils in our everyday lives. But it’s Google’s close ties with the state that might surprise you.

That story goes back to the inception of Google Earth.

Once, Google Earth was a startup called Keyhole. The product was pretty similar, a VR map of the world, based on satellite imagery and aerial photography (this was before the Google Earth van). When it ran out of funding when the dotcom bubble burst, the CIA stepped in through its Silicon Valley investment vehicle, In-Q-Tel. Keyhole’s product wound up supporting the ‘shock and awe’ phase of the Iraq invasion, before being bought out by Google in 2004.

How involved exactly was the CIA in all of this? Was this a spy org creating the tools it wanted through contractors, business as usual for the military-industrial complex, or just the US Army using some tech anyone could use?

The CIA might know. But in response to a FOIA request by journalist Yasha Levine in 2015, the agency replied that it could ‘neither confirm nor denythe existence of any records relating to its involvement in the sale. Even the stuff that tells you whether there are any secrets or not, is secret.

From there on, Google became more and more involved in defence and intelligence contracting.

In 2007, it partnered with Lockheed Martin to design a visual intelligence system for the NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] 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.

And Google Earth? When Google won a no-bids contract worth $27m to provide the NGA with ‘geospatial visualization services,’ it drew criticism: why had the contract not been put up to bids? The NGA said it had no choice. It had spent years building Google Earth the way it wanted, and there was no alternative provider that could match Google.

Don’t be evil, indeed. While it built consumer-facing apps that functioned as data siphons, Google played ball with state spooks, armed forces and law enforcement on a level no-one suspected.

Google’s Earth: how the tech giant is helping the state spy on us,’ Yasha Levine, The Guardian

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