Google’s Earth: how the tech giant is helping the state spy on us
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.
By the end of 2016, Google’s Android was installed on 82% of all new smartphones sold around the world, and by mid-2017 there were more than 2 billion Android users globally.
By early 2018, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had 85,050 employees, working out of more than 70 offices in 50 countries. The company had a market capitalisation of $727bn at the end of 2017, making it the second most valuable public company in the world, beaten only by Apple, another Silicon Valley giant. Its profits for the first quarter of 2018 were $9.4bn.
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.
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. Its CEO, John Hanke, told journalists that the inspiration for his company came from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a cult science-fiction novel in which the hero taps into a programme created by the “Central Intelligence Corporation” called Planet Earth, a virtual reality construct designed, as the book describes, to “keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns – all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff”.
Keyhole had its roots in videogame technology, but deployed it in the real world, creating a programme that stitched satellite images and aerial photographs into seamless 3D computer models of the Earth that could be explored as if they were in a virtual reality game world. It was a groundbreaking product that allowed anyone with an internet connection to virtually fly over anywhere in the world. The only problem was Keyhole’s timing: it was a bit off. It launched just as the dotcom bubble blew up in Silicon Valley’s face. Funding dried up, and Keyhole found itself struggling to survive. Luckily, the company was saved just in time by the very entity that inspired it: the CIA.
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. Months after In-Q-Tel’s investment, Keyhole software was already integrated into operational service and deployed to support US troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the shock-and-awe campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Intelligence officials were impressed with the “videogame-like” simplicity of its virtual maps. They also appreciated the ability to layer visual information over other intelligence. The possibilities were limited only by what contextual data could be fed and grafted on to a map: troop movements, weapons caches, real-time weather and ocean conditions, intercepted emails and phone call intel, and mobile phone locations.
Keyhole gave intelligence analysts, field commanders, air force pilots and others the kind of capabilities we take for granted today when we use digital mapping services on our computers and smartphones to look up restaurants, cafes, museums, traffic or subway routes.
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.
The purchase of Keyhole was a milestone for Google, marking the moment the company stopped being a purely consumer-facing internet company and began integrating with the US government. 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”.
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.
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.
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”.
By 2017, the federal government was spending $90bn a year on information technology. It’s a huge market – one in which Google seeks to maintain a strong presence. And its success has been all but guaranteed. Its products are the best in the business.
Here’s a sign of how vital Google has become to the US government: in 2010, following a disastrous intrusion into its system by what the company believes was a group of Chinese government hackers, Google entered into a secretive agreement with the NSA. “According to officials who were privy to the details of Google’s arrangements with the NSA, the company agreed to provide information about traffic on its networks in exchange for intelligence from the NSA about what it knew of foreign hackers,” wrote defence reporter Shane Harris in @War, a history of warfare. “It was a quid pro quo, information for information. And from the NSA’s perspective, information in exchange for protection.”
This made perfect sense. Google servers supplied critical services to the Pentagon, the CIA and the state department, just to name a few. It was part of the military family and essential to American society. It needed to be protected, too.
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.
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.
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?”
This is an edited extract from Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet by Yasha Levine, which will be published by Icon on 3 January, and is available to preorder at guardianbookshop.com