Emails showing Google's closeness with the NSA Director really aren't that surprising

By Yasha Levine , written on May 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Last week, Al-Jazeera caused a minor shitstorm by publishing a short stack of emails between ex-NSA Director Keith Alexander and Google execs Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.

The correspondence, which dates back to June 2012 and was obtained through FOIA by journalist Jason Leopold, shows Gen. Alexander yakking it up with the two executives and inviting them to attend a special NSA advisory panel on "mobility threats and security" for Silicon Valley tycoons scheduled for August. It also shows that Google execs had taken part in similar NSA-Silicon Valley powwows in the past. Indeed, Alexander heaped praise on Schmidt and Brin for all the work their company's done to help the NSA secure America "against the threat in cyberspace."

Eric Schmidt ducked out of the invitation, citing a prior engagement. But Google co-founder Sergey Brin didn't shirk his patriotic duty. He wrote back confirming that he planned to attend, writing in casual lowercase: "hi keith, looking forward to seeing you next week."


To Jason Leopold, the emails "suggest a far cozier working relationship between some tech firms and the US government than was implied by Silicon Valley brass after last year’s revelations about NSA spying.”

And indeed, they do. But, ultimately, the correspondence doesn't provide us very much insight into Google's relationship with the intelligence agency. Is it really that strange that executives from a tech and communications mega-corp like Google periodically meet with top level government officials responsible for guarding America's communications infrastructure?

What's the big deal, right?

Well, it is a big deal. But to really understand why, we need to place Google's buddy-buddy emails in the proper context. And that means we have to talk about Google's long and ongoing history of close collaboration with US military and surveillance agencies — collaboration that's been so close and has been going on for long that it's sometimes hard to discern where Google Inc. ends and the NatSec apparatus begins.

It might come as a surprise to some, but Google does much more than provide us pedestrians with email, search and cool office apps. It markets its tech to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the biggest intel agencies in the world: the NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA, NGA and just about every wing of the DoD.

And as I've reported before, this relationship isn't new. It goes back at least a decade.

Google's relationship with the NSA goes back to 2003. That year, the company scored a two year $2.07 million contract to outfit the spy agency with Google's search technology. “The NSA paid Google for a search appliance capable of searching 15 million documents in twenty-four languages,” according to Consumer Watchdog, which obtained the contract.

Word must have been spread through the intel world about Google's search capabilities because a year later, in 2004, Google scored another search contract — this time with the CIA. The details of the deal are presumably still classified. The only reason we know about it is because Douglas Edwards mentioned it in passing it in his book, "I'm Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee Number 59."

Edwards noted that the folks at the CIA even asked permission to customize Google's logo on their internal search page. They wanted to place the CIA seal in one of the Google O's:

I told our sales rep to give them the okay if they promised not to tell anyone. I didn't want it spooking privacy advocates. "Do you think they can keep a secret?" I asked her.
But outfitting the CIA and NSA with search technology was just the beginning for Google.

While technicians were bolting Google's search boxes onto racks at NSA and CIA server farms, the company was embarking on a much more ambitious and longterm project that would bring it into close collaboration with just about every major military and surveillance agency in the United States.

It all goes back to Google's acquisition of a tiny and unknown 3-D mapping startup called Keyhole. Google purchased the company in 2004 for an undisclosed sum and immediately folded the company's mapping technology into what later became known as Google Earth.

The acquisition would have gone unnoticed if it wasn't for one tiny detail: Keyhole was part owned by the CIA and NSA.

A year before Google bought the company, it had received a substantial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital fund run by the CIA on behalf of the military and intelligence community.

The exact amount that In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified. What we do know is that when In-Q-Tel came along, Keyhole was on the brink of bankruptcy and was reduced to hawking the software at real estate conventions. What's interesting is In-Q-Tel's investment funds didn't come from CIA’s intelligence budget — as they normally do with In-Q-Tel's deals  — but from the NGA, which provided the money on behalf of the entire “Intelligence Community.” That meant equity in Keyhole was held by two of the biggest intelligence agencies in America.

Keyhole’s new investors didn't sit idle -- they became intimately involvement in running the company. This was no secret. The CIA publicly discussed its hands-on approach, bragging in its promotional materials that the agency “worked closely with other Intelligence Community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs."

Those CIA guys worked fast: Just a few weeks after In-Q-Tel invested in Keyhole, an NGA official bragged that its technology was already being deployed by the Pentagon to prepare U.S. forces for the invasion of Iraq.

Did Google not realize that its acquisition of Keyhole would guarantee close collaboration with US military and intelligence agencies?

That's very hard to believe. Indeed, the CIA itself indicated that Keyhole's ties to the military-surveillance complex is what attracted Google's attention in the first place.

From the CIA Museum:

...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.

So the next time you are exploring a new land from the comfort of your laptop or snapping pictures with your lithium-battery-powered digital camera, take a moment to think about some other ways CIA technology may have improved life outside its walls.

Thanks CIA!

The Intelligence Community’s involvement in Keyhole/Google Earth continued unabated after it was absorbed into Google. The company kept working closely with the NGA to develop and customize Google Earth technology for military and intelligence needs.

So much for Google's distance from America's NatSec State... But hey, Google wasn't complaining.

This budding relationship fit into Google's larger strategy: to carve out as big of a slice of the lucrative government contracting market as possible. To that end, Google Earth became more than a product. It was Google's ticket into the murky and impenetrable world of the military-intelligence-industrial complex.

In 2008, Google entered into a three-way partnership with the NGA and a quasi-government company called GeoEye to launch a private spy satellite.

Two years later, Google's special status in US intelligence was made pretty much official. In 2010, the NGA announced that it had awarded Google a no-bid contract worth $27 million to provide the agency with “geospatial visualization services.” The agency was very candid about its decision, explaining that it didn't open the contract to competitors because it simply couldn't go with anyone else. The Intelligence Community had made "significant investment" in Google’s mapping and geospatial technology — invested in it so much that “NSG, DoD, and Intelligence Community” could at this point only use Google products.

Google's relationship with the intelligence community flowed both ways. Earlier in 2010, the company entered into a “formal information-sharing relationship” with the NSA to help secure Google's network infrastructure after it was breached by a sophisticated Chinese hacker attack.

Multiple privacy groups voiced concern about the deal. Google mediates the digital lives of hundreds of millions of people. What exactly was Google sharing with the NSA? How was it safeguarding the data of its users and clients from the powerful intel-hungry spy agency?

What was the nature of the partnership? We still don't know.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed multiple FOIA requests to determine the exact nature of the agreement. But the NSA wouldn't budge. 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. Google wasn't talking either. The company fell back on its tried-and-true crisis PR strategy: hunker down, ignore, and wait for the storm to pass. And pass it did...

Meanwhile, Google had started ramping up its "public sector" division, hard-selling its services to federal agencies and local and state governments as well.

Google has sold to government agencies directly — like it did with the NSA and CIA. It also has taken the role of subcontractor, partnering with established military contractors and privatized surveillance firms like SAIC, Lockheed, and smaller boutique outfits like the Blackwater-connected merc outfit called Blackbird.

By 2013, Google had racked up contracts with a long list of federal agencies: the U.S. Naval Academy signed up for Google Apps, the U.S. Army tapped Google Apps for a pilot program involving 50,000 DoD personnel, Idaho’s nuclear lab went Google, the U.S. Department of the Interior switched to Gmail, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy went with Google, too.

Breaking into the nepotistic world of America’s military-intelligence-industrial complex is no easy feat. To do the job effectively, Google's been staffing its D.C. office with all sorts of former spooks, high-level intelligence officials, and revolving door military contractors, many of them alums of the very agencies Google was now targeting for business: US Army, Air Force Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, USAID, SAIC, Lockheed…

So is it surprising that Brin and Schmidt are so friendly with the NSA Director?

Want to know more? Read the Google-NSA emails over at Al-Jazeera. And check out our coverage of Google's NatSec ties here, here and here...

[Image credit: Brad Jonas for Pando]