Google’s ties to CIA point up need for transparency

The report in Wired last week about a high-tech firm funded jointly by Google and the CIA, Recorded Future,  not only signaled a growing skepticism about the most popular Internet search engine. It also pointed up the dangers of the lack of transparency poses for Google.

“No one is accusing Google of directly collaborating with the CIA,” said  Wired’s Noah Shachtman, “But the investments are bound to be fodder for critics of Google, who already see the search giant as overly cozy with the U.S. government, and worry that the company is starting to forget its “don’t be evil” mantra.

Our Inside Google colleague John Simpson told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that congressional hearings are needed to establish transparency.

Like many, Bob Jacobson at the  Huffington Post was reminded of the movie “Minority Report” and its precrime SWAT units. He noted:

“Private corporations have been using systems like Recorded Future’s for over a decade, constantly refining their predictive capabilities. But none has at its disposal the computing power or access to all the world’s data that Google and the CIA have between them. Corporations and private investors that can wangle their way into the Company’s good graces as collaborators and subcontractors could have a tremendous advantage over their competitors if they can gain access to Recorded Future, even in its infancy.”

Network World asked some sensible questions and added a timely historical reminder.
“If information is scraped and analyzed from public domains, then what exactly do Google and Microsoft consider public domains? If you save a draft in an email, but don’t send it, is it public domain if it’s merely stored on software companies’ servers? The intelligence community has a history of warrantless seizure of emails without notifying the account holder.”

Without answers, Google’s reputation suffers.

The Wired story was picked up by Arab News, a credible English-language site in Saudi Arabia, which suggested the search engine might be helping U.S. intelligence agencies to profile Internet users as “terrorists.” That’s probably not the case. But how would a reader in Saudi Arabia know? If Google assumes its good reputation will insure the benefit of the doubt in the Arab world, it is fooling itself.

Farther out in the blogosphere, the InfoWars blog used the story to fuel its conspiratorial cosmology which portrays the search company, like the 9/11 attacks and the president’s birth certificate, as the sophisticated ruse of occult power.

The idea that Google collaborates with intelligence agencies would seem to be poisonous for the brand built on consumer trust. But maybe that’s not the way it looks in Mountain View.

Published by Margot Williams

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

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