OAKLAND—On February 18, several hundred privacy, labor, civil rights activists and Black Bloc anarchists packed Oakland’s city hall. They were there to protest the construction of a citywide surveillance center that would turn a firehouse in downtown Oakland into a high-tech intelligence hub straight outta Mission Impossible.
It was a rowdy crowd, and there was a heavy police presence. Some people carried “State Surveillance No!” signs. A few had their faces covered in rags, and taunted and provoked city officials by jamming smartphones in their faces and snapping photos.
Main item on the agenda that night: The “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC) — a federally funded project that, if built as planned, would link up real time audio and video feeds from thousands of sensors across the city — including CCTV cameras in public schools and public housing projects, as well as Oakland Police Department mobile license plate scanners — into one high-tech control hub, where analysts could pipe the data through face recognition software, surveil the city by location and enrich its intelligence with data coming in from local, state and federal government and law enforcement agencies.
During the meeting, city officials argued that the DAC would help police deal with Oakland’s violent crime and invoked 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, saying that a streamlined intelligence system would help protect residents in the event of natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Their explanation was met with hisses, boos, outbursts and constant interruption from the packed gallery, and the city council struggled to retain order, repeatedly threatening to clear the room.
The anger wasn’t just the standard objection to surveillance — or at least it was, but it had been intensified by a set of documents, obtained through a public records request by privacy activists, that showed city officials were more interested in using DAC’s surveillance capabilities to monitor political protests rather than fighting crime. The evidence was abundant and overwhelming: in email after email, Oakland officials had discussed the DAC usefulness for keeping tabs on activists, monitoring non-violent political protests and minimize port disruption due to union/labor strikes.
In particular, officials wanted to use the surveillance center to monitor Occupy Wall Street-style activists, and prevent union organizing and labor strikes that might shut down the Port of Oakland.
This revelation was particularly troubling in Oakland — a city with a large marginalized black population, a strong union presence and a long, ugly history of police brutality aimed at minority groups and political activists. Police conduct is so atrocious that the department now operates under federal oversight.
Ultimately, the information contained in the document helped anti-DAC activists convince Oakland’s city council to somewhat limit the scope and size of the surveillance center. It was a minor victory, but a victory nonetheless.
But buried deep in the thousands of pages of planning documents, invoices and correspondence was something that the activists either seemed to have missed or weren’t concerned by. A handful of emails revealing that representatives from Oakland had met with executives from Google to discuss a partnership between the tech giant and the DAC.
The emails showed that Google, the largest and most powerful megacorp in Surveillance Valley, was among several other military/defense contractors vying for a piece of DAC’s $10.9-million surveillance contracting action.
Here’s an email exchange from October 2013. It is between Scott Ciabattari, a Google “strategic partnership manager,” and Renee Domingo, an Oakland official spearheading the DAC project:
From: Scott Ciabattari
To: Domingo, Renee
Sent: Thu Oct 03 05:57:01 2013
Subject: Thank you…
Great pleasure to meet you yesterday.
We are excited to help and I look forward to speaking with you again.
Please feel free to contact mc anytime.
Renee Domingo replied to Ciabattari a few hours later, and cc’ed Oakland mayor Jean Quan:
From: Domingo, Renee
Sent: Thursday, October 03, 2013 8:38 AM
To: Scott Ciabattari
Cc: Baig, Ahsan; Johnson, Marshelle; Campbell-Washington. Anne, Quan, Jean
Subject: Re Thank you
I spoke with our Intern Director of Information Technology, Ahsan Baig, last night and he will provide some potential dates for us to meet with you week after next, to begin the dialogue.
He is very interested in seeing some of the demos and products Google has available for our EOC/DAC as well as how the City might partner with Google
I will also send you the information about the Resilient Cities Challenges and request Google become one of Oakland’s partners. as well, tomorrow.
I am offsite at meetings all day today
I look forward on behalf of the City of Oakland, of working with you and Google.
Best regards always,
These emails raised more questions than they answered. What exactly was the nature of this partnership? And what kind of products did Google have to offer a controversial police surveillance center designed to spy on protesters and labor activists?
Pando reached out (~24 hours ago) to Renee Domingo, Scott Ciabattari and Google to try to get the specifics of what was discussed. At press time, none of them had responded to multiple requests for comment.
Absent an official response, and given the context and Google’s recent aggressive expansion of government contracting business, we can only make an educated guess about the kinds of products Google was peddling to the DAC.
For instance: just a few weeks before meeting up with Oakland officials to talk, Google’s Ciabattari attended the Geospatial Conference of the West in Wyoming in 2013, where he delivered a 30-minute presentation about all the cool intel tech that Google can provides to local, state and federal government agencies.
His pitch revolved around Google Earth Enterprise, the company’s flagship intelligence product. He described how Google Earth can be used to integrate disparate data intelligence sources and tie them all in with Google’s mapping technology. Google Earth has been specially designed in close collaboration with the intelligence community (more on that a little later), and is perfectly suited for all kinds of law enforcement uses.
Ciabattari cited a number of examples of how police departments can achieve total information awareness by using Google’s search functionality, which allows them to aggregate and centralize local, county and federal databases, and then grafts all of that intel onto a map. He stressed that Google gives law enforcement access to “information — at the right time, at the right place” — which helps boost safety and efficiency. He also talked about using Google’s big data trend technology to do “predictive policing.”
Ciabattari’s presentation is boring and monotone, and is tough to sit through. But it provides a window into a side of Google that few of us are aware exists: Google the military-intelligence contractor.
* * *
Most people still think that Google is one of the good guys on the Internet, that it cares about cyber-democracy and is on our side in the the fight against the NSA and our modern military-surveillance society. Google certainly does everything it can to project that image.
The company funds privacy think tanks, opposes secret wiretaps and has been very critical of government surveillance in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Google chairman Eric Schmidt personally registered a complaint about government spying with President Barack Obama, and the company joined a forward-thinking Silicon Valley organization ostensibly dedicated to promoting government surveillance reform in the name of “free expression and privacy.”
Google’s big principled stance against surveillance is honorable — or it would be, if the company wasn’t so deeply involved in the very thing that it claims to be against.
Regular Pando readers already know that Google makes its billions by spying on people for profit: it funnels as much of our online and digital activities through its own networks and compiles detailed dossiers on hundreds of millions of Internet users all over the globe.
But what few people realize is that Google has also been using its wares to enhance and enrich the surveillance operations of the biggest and most powerful intelligence and DoD agencies in the world: NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA and NGA — the whole alphabet soup.
And we’re not just talking about giving spies access to Gmail, Google Drive or Google search. Google offers these agencies a whole range of customized services to organize and integrate their vast and disparate intelligence streams. Some of Google’s partnerships with the intelligence community are so close and cooperative, and have been going on for so long, that it’s not easy to discern where Google Inc ends and government spook operations begin.
In the past few years, Google has aggressively intensified its campaign to grab a bigger slice of the insanely lucrative military-intelligence contracting market. It’s been targeting not just the big and juicy federal agencies, but hard-selling its intel technology to smaller local and state government agencies as well.
This sector might not represent a huge share of Google’s overall business, but it is growing, and fast.
* * *
Googles ties to military-intelligence industrial complex go back to 1990s, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still run of the mill computer science PhD students at Stanford.
Their research into web search and indexing — which they spun off into a private company in 1998 — was part of a Stanford project partially funded by DARPA, a research and development appendage to the DoD. The two nerdy inventors even gave the DoD’s research arm a shout out in a 1998 paper that outlined Google’s search and indexing methodology.
Computer science research is frequently funded with military and defense money, of course. But Google’s ties to the military-intelligence world didn’t end after they Brin and Page privatized their research and moved their startup operation off campus. If anything, the relationship deepened and got more intimate after they left Stanford.
The details of Google’s business relationships with the intelligence community — even the existence of these deals — are not always easy to come by. The earliest concrete example I could dig up goes back to 2003, when Google secured a $2.07-million gig to outfit the National Security Agency (NSA) with Google’s search tech.
“The NSA paid Google for a search appliance capable of searching 15 million documents in twenty-four languages,” according to Consumer Watchdog, which obtained contract documents outlining the NSA-Google partnership. The contract was to last only a year and apparently was never renewed by the NSA, nonetheless Google kept providing its search services for two full years — free of charge.
At exactly the same time that Google was trying to improve the NSA’s internal search capabilities, the company was in negotiations with two other intelligence agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a close cousin of the NSA that primarily deals with geospatial/satellite intel for both combat and civilian operations.
These negotiations had to do with Google’s purchase of Keyhole, a tiny tech startup that developed 3-D mapping technology. The company’s main product was an application called EarthViewer, which allowed users to fly and move around a virtual globe as if they were in a video game. Google purchased Keyhole in 2004 for an undisclosed sum, and folded its technology into what later became known as Google Earth.
At the time, Google’s acquisition of Keyhole raised serious privacy concerns. The reason was simple: In 2003, just a year before Google bought Keyhole, the company was saved from bankruptcy by In-Q-Tel, a venture capital fund run by the CIA on behalf of the military and intelligence community. Until the CIA came along, Keyhole was on the brink of bankruptcy and was reduced to giving its software away for free to CNN in exchange for promotion and hawking it at real estate conventions.
Although the exact amount that In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified. What we do know is that the bulk of the funds didn’t come from the CIA’s intelligence budget — as they normally do with In-Q-Tel — but from the NGA, which provided the money on behalf of the entire “Intelligence Community.” As a result, equity in Keyhole was held by two major intelligence agencies.
Keyhole’s new investors did not sit on the sidelines, but aggressively involved themselves in the operation and evolution of the business. This was no secret. The CIA publicly discussed its involvement, writing on its promotional materials that the agency “worked closely with other Intelligence Community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs.”
And they didn’t waste any time: Just a few weeks after In-Q-Tel invested in Keyhole, an NGA official bragged its technology was already being deployed by the Pentagon to prepare U.S. forces for the invasion of Iraq. Keyhole was also being used by US TV networks to display cool dynamic maps in their coverage of the Iraq War.
According to an entry on the CIA Museum webpage, where Google Earth is described as “CIA-assisted technology”…
“All of this acclaim eventually caught the attention of Google Inc., a multinational cyber-focused corporation, which acquired Keyhole in 2004, thereby laying the groundwork for the development of Google Earth…”
It’s hard to imagine that Google didn’t realize that its acquisition of Keyhole guaranteed — if not mandated and contractually required — close collaboration with US intelligence and military agencies. Indeed, the Intelligence Community’s involvement in the development of Keyhole technology continued unabated after it was absorbed into Google.
How close was the collaboration?
In 2008, Google entered into a three-way partnership with the NGA and a quasi-government company called GeoEye to launch a spy satellite called GeoEye-1. The new satellite, which was funded in large part by the NGA, delivered extremely high-resolution images for the exclusive use of NGA and Google.
That’s right. Google had exclusive access to the NGA’s satellite image feed. The only restriction: Google had to use slightly lower resolution images.
It’s not clear how much Google had to pay for this arrangement. However much it was, the deal included the placement of a Google logo on the giant Boeing missile that launched the 4,300-pound GeoEye-1 spy satellite from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. You can see it here at blast off…
In 2010, Google’s relationship with the NGA got even tighter. That year, the agency awarded Google a no-bid contract worth $27 million to provide the agency with “geospatial visualization services.”
The NGA took heat for not opening up the contract to competitive bids from other providers geoint services providers, but defended its decision to go only with Google. The agency explaining it simply had no other choice: the intelligence community had already “made significant investment in Google Earth technology” and could not back out now.
The NGA was very frank in its statement:
NGA has made a significant investment in Google Earth technology through the GEOINT Visualization Services (GVS) Program on SECRET and TOP SECRET government networks and throughout the world in support of the National System for Geospatial (NSG) Expeditionary Architecture (NEA). This effort augments the current NSG architecture by expanding the GVS and NEA investments to the unclassified network in support of Department of Defense (DoD) Geospatial Visualization Enterprise Services (GV-ES) standardization. The NSG, DoD, and Intelligence Community have made additional investments to support client and application deployment and testing that use the existing Google Earth services provided by NGA
Yes, the NGA, sister agency to the NSA, made “significant investment” in Google’s mapping and geospatial technology — invested in it so much that “NSG, DoD, and Intelligence Community” can only use Google products.
Put another way: Google is the exclusive provider of geospatial intelligence services to America’s military and intelligence agencies.
This buddy-buddy relationship with the intelligence community was multi-faceted. Earlier in 2010, Google entered a “formal information-sharing relationship” with the NSA to secure and its network infrastructure. Google sought out the NSA after its system was breached by a sophisticated Chinese hacker attack,
Here’s the Washington Post in February 4:
Under an agreement that is still being finalized, the National Security Agency would help Google analyze a major corporate espionage attack that the firm said originated in China and targeted its computer networks, according to cybersecurity experts familiar with the matter. The objective is to better defend Google — and its users — from future attack.
Google approached the NSA shortly after the attacks, sources said, but the deal is taking weeks to hammer out, reflecting the sensitivity of the partnership. Any agreement would mark the first time that Google has entered a formal information-sharing relationship with the NSA, sources said. In 2008, the firm stated that it had not cooperated with the NSA in its Terrorist Surveillance Program.
The pact would be aimed at allowing the NSA help Google understand whether it is putting in place the right defenses by evaluating vulnerabilities in hardware and software and to calibrate how sophisticated the adversary is. The agency’s expertise is based in part on its analysis of cyber-“signatures” that have been documented in previous attacks and can be used to block future intrusions.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) raised concerns about Google’s partnership with the NSA, and filed multiple FOIA requests to determine the exact nature of their agreement. EPIC was eventually forced sue the NSA for failure to comply with its document requests. But ultimately, a court ruled that the NSA had no legal duty to confirm nor deny anything about its relationship or lack of relationship with Google.
2010 was a heady year for Google. Aside from its NGA contract and close collaboration with the NSA, the company secured its first major non-intelligence/non-classified contract with the federal government.
The General Service Administration awarded Google a five-year contract worth $6.7 million to provide the agency with “cloud-based” email services.
Even more valuable than the contract was the fact that Google became the first “cloud-based” services provider to get federal security certification for non-classified data.
With the certification, Google got the drop on its competition — mainly Microsoft and Salesforce — and now had a much needed stamp of approval that opened the door for Google to aggressively pursue other government contracts for hosting services for non-classified purposes.
By the end of 2013, Google had racked up contracts to provide IT services to a long list of federal agencies.
- In February 2013, U.S. Naval Academy signed up for Google Apps…
- In October 2013, the U.S. Army tapped Google Apps for a pilot program involving 50,000 “Army and Department of Defense (DoD) personnel”…
- In 2012, Idaho’s nuclear lab went Google…
- In 2012, Department of the Interior awarded Google with a seven-year contract to provide email services for $35 million…
- In 2011, U.S. Coast Guard Academy went with Google, too…
At same time, Google began racking up a good number of state and municipal governments, including law enforcement: Los Angeles, Lake Havasu Police Department, State of Wyoming, City of North Las Vegas, Boston and 40 other agencies went over to Google Apps as of this writing.
Hell, it even launched a creepy Soviet-style “Government Transformers” page paying tribute to government heroes who’ve made the switch to Google.
Some foreign governments — especially Russia and China — view Google with extreme suspicion and see the company as an agent of the U.S. Government. This may be largely paranoia, but not entirely. After all, as the evidence shows — from branded spy satellites to emails in Oakland — the ties between Larry, Serge, Eric and Uncle Sam run deep.
Want to know more? Read our other Surveillance Valley coverage…