“Dark Google”, privacy and power

As the information age and big data colonize everything in life – expanding now into reality itself – we face an erosion not only of privacy but of choice. Even as we think we have greater choice and power, really important choices and power are being subtly stolen from us by folks who don’t want us to know or do anything about it. We need to take back our lives while we still can.

Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes told us that “Knowledge is power.” We need to integrate their insight with Sir John Acton’s observation that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In this runaway Information Age we need to realize that one-way concentrations of knowledge power are dangerous when they are not answerable, not responsive to oversight and feedback. The article below, “Dark Google”, makes this point powerfully regarding Google and the NSA. The author, Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff, is eminently qualified to issue this warning.

Google, the NSA, and correlated networks and institutions have accumulated a lot of unanswerable information power, with more to come. This is why privacy is becoming an issue, not only for each of us or because “we have something to hide”, but for all of us because it powerfully impacts the ability of our societies to be democratic and our collective ability to shape our shared lives and our future.

Privacy is about control over knowledge about ourselves and our lives. The “right to privacy” is acknowledged – if not always honored – in democratic countries everywhere. It gives us power over our lives and restrains the power of others – especially governments, large businesses, and our enemies – to negatively impact us. Zuboff observes that “Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.”

Modern surveillance and data-mining systems concentrate knowledge-power about us and our lives in the hands of corporations and government agencies who can then use it to shape our minds, feelings, and lives in ways over which we have precious little say. They deny us power to withhold knowledge about ourselves and our lives at the same time they deny us power to understand how they track us and to shape what they do with what they learn. They are progressively stealing and centralizing the right to privacy – and the power it gives – in their own hands.

In short, they use their right to privacy and secrecy to deny us that same right, and this is the source of their increasingly absolute power. The irony is that they also use that power to give us more of what we think we want and need, individually and collectively, faster and more conveniently. The downside of this obvious seduction is hidden both by their secrecy and PR and by our oblivious joy in and growing dependence on the access to services and goods that they provide.

The coming regime shaped by the Google carrot and the NSA stick – an era in which we think we’re experiencing increasing fluidity of personal power while being subtly tracked and manipulated at every turn – is a whole new ball game, something we’ve never experienced before.

Except it’s not a game – not really – even if we think it is. And there’s no ball. Or maybe we’re the ball. Or maybe the whole world is the ball…

Omniscience. Omnipotence. And the victor writes the history…

“Dark Google” attempts to awaken us to technosocial dynamics that are – like the physical dynamics of climate change – evolving rapidly beyond our capacity to track and influence. The window for positive intervention is closing. It’s time to step out of our old business-as-usual long enough to co-create a new business-as-usual that more dependably serves our lives, our world, and our future.


PS: On a related personal note, there’s this about our addiction to the screen:

And for more insight on the trip that is taking us into this trap, see this:

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We witness the rise of a new absolute power. Google transfers its radical politics from cyberspace to reality. It will earn its money by knowing, manipulating, controlling the reality and cutting it into the tiniest pieces.

By Shoshana Zuboff

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Frankfurt General Newspaper”)
April 30, 2014

Recall those fabled frogs happy in the magic pond. Playful. Distracted. The water temperature slowly rises, but the frogs don’t notice. By the time it reaches the boiling point, it’s too late to leap to safety. We are as frogs in the digital waters, and Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner has just become our frog town crier. Mr. Dopfner’s “Why We Fear Google“ (a response to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s open letter, “A Chance for Growth“) warns of danger on the move: “The temperatures are rising fast.” If his cry of alarm scares you, that’s good. Why?

First, because there is a dawning awareness that Google is forging a new kingdom on the strength of a different kind of power –– ubiquitous, hidden, and unaccountable. If successful, the dominion of this kingdom will exceed anything the world has known. The water is close to boiling, because Google understands this statement more profoundly than we do.

Second, because accessing the Web and the wider Internet have become essential for effective social participation across much of the world. A BBC poll conducted in 2010 found that 79% of people in 26 countries considered access to the Internet to be a fundamental human right. We rely on Google’s tools as we search, learn, connect, communicate, and transact. The chilling irony is that we’ve become dependent on the Internet to enhance our lives, but the very tools we use there threaten to remake society in ways that we do not understand and have not chosen.

Something new and dangerous

If there is a single word to describe Google, it is “absolute.” The Britannica defines absolutism as a system in which “the ruling power is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency.” In ordinary affairs, absolutism is a moral attitude in which values and principles are regarded as unchallengeable and universal. There is no relativism, context-dependence, or openness to change.

Six years ago I asked Eric Schmidt what corporate innovations Google was putting in place to ensure that its interests were aligned with its end users. Would it betray their trust? Back then his answer stunned me. He and Google’s founders control the super-voting class B stock. This allows them, he explained, to make decisions without regard to short-term pressure from Wall Street. Of course, it also insulates them from every other kind of influence. There was no wrestling with the creation of an inclusive, trustworthy, and transparent governance system. There was no struggle to institutionalize scrutiny and feedback. Instead Schmidt’s answer was the quintessence of absolutism: “trust me; I know best.” At that moment I knew I was in the presence of something new and dangerous whose effects reached beyond narrow economic contests and into the heart of everyday life.

Google kills Innovation

Mr. Schmidt’s open letter to Europe shows evidence of such absolutism. Democratic oversight is characterized as “heavy-handed regulation.” The “Internet”, “Web”, and “Google” are referenced interchangeably, as if Google’s interests stand for the entire Web and Internet. That’s a magician’s sleight of hand intended to distract from the real issue. Google’s absolutist pursuit of its interests is now regarded by many as responsible for the Web’s fading prospects as an open information platform in which participants can agree on rules, rights, and choice.

Schmidt warns that were the E.U. to oppose Google’s practices, Europe risks becoming “an innovation desert.” Just the opposite is more likely true. Thanks in part to Google’s exquisite genius in the science of surveillance, the audacity with which it has expropriated users’ rights to privacy, and the aggressive tactics of the NSA, people are losing trust in the entire digital medium. It is this loss of trust that stands to kill innovation. To make some sense of our predicament, let’s take a fresh look at how we got here, the nature of the threats we face, and the stakes for the future.

Google Colonizes a Blank Area and the NSA Follows

In his extended essay, “The Loneliness of the Dying“, the sociologist Norbert Elias observes that “dying is at present a largely unformed situation, a blank area on the social map.” Such “blanks” occur when earlier meanings and practices no longer apply, but new ones have yet to be created. Google’s rapid rise to power was possible because it ventured into this kind of blank area. It colonized the blank space at high speed without challenge or impediment. Google did not ask permission, seek consensus, elicit opinion, or even make visible its rules and ramparts. How did this occur?

Breaking the Rules of the “Old World“

The first key ingredient was demand. During the second half of the twentieth century, more education and complex social experience produced a new kind of individual. No longer content to conform to the mass, more people sought their own unique paths to self-determination. It was a period of growing frustration with existing institutions that were still oriented toward the mass society of an earlier time. People wanted to reinvent social experiences in ways that expressed their new sensibilities. They wanted information on their own terms, not controlled by the old norms, professional fortresses, and business models.

The arrival of the Internet provided a new way forward. As web browsers and search tools became available, the new individuals rushed onto the Web with their pent up demands for genuine voice and connection. Information access and communication could bypass old boundaries and be reconfigured to suit any need. Here finally was experience how I want it, where I want it, when I want it. There was a presumption that the adversarial rules from the “old world” of 20th century commerce did not apply. This was a new “networked public sphere,” as legal scholar Yochai Benkler called it. There was no looking back.

Google and other companies rushed into the new space, too, and for a while it seemed that they were aligned with the popular expectations of trust and collaboration. But as pressures for profit increased, Google, Facebook, and others shifted to an advertising model that required the covert capture of user data as the currency for ad sales. Profits rapidly materialized and motivated ever more ruthless and determined data collection. The new science of data mining exploded, driven in part by Google’s spectacular success.

Fighting the Law

The whole topography of cyberspace then began to morph as Google and Facebook shifted away from the ethos of the public web, while carefully retaining its rhetoric. They began to develop a new logic of operations in what had until then been a blank area. The new zone didn’t resemble the bricks and mortar world of commerce, but neither did it follow the norms of the open web. This confused and distracted users. In fact, the firms were developing a wholly new business logic that incorporated elements of the conventional logic of corporate capitalism – especially its adversarialism toward end consumers – along with elements from the new Internet world – especially its intimacy. The outcome was the elaboration of a new commercial logic based on hidden surveillance. Most people did not understand that they and their friends were being tracked, parsed, and mined without their knowledge or consent.

A steady stream of eruptions from the new zone provides evidence of this new logic of operations. For example, Google faces a series of contentious lawsuits over its secret scanning of all Gmail, including mail from non-Gmail accounts. It first tried to conceal the scanning procedures in 2010 and only fully acknowledged them after four years of public outcry. In one “potentially explosive” lawsuit Google acknowledged that it unilaterally scans millions of email messages sent or received by the 30 million student users of the the company’s Apps for Education tools. In 2012 Google faced more outrage and lawsuits when it announced that it would consolidate data about its users from all its services without any mechanism of consent.

Google Street View, launched in 2007, is another example of the company’s absolutism. It didn’t ask if it could photograph homes for public consumption, it just took what it wanted and waited for any resistance to exhaust itself in defeat. Ultimately Street View would face protests and restrictions in many countries across the EU as well as Japan, Greece, and Canada.

The Shared Interest of NSA and Google

By 2010 the German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection announced that Google’s Street View operation also camouflaged a covert data sweep from users of private Wi-Fi networks. He called for an immediate halt to Street View in Germany and erasure of all illegally captured data. Other countries followed with their own investigations and prosecutions.

The Electronic Privacy and Information Center has consistently pressed the case. It maintains a detailed overview of the worldwide outrage, protests, investigations, litigation, and settlements in response to Google Street View and its secret data gathering tactics.

In 2010, Google established a partnership with the NSA that added to the complexity and opacity of operations in the new zone. The ostensible trigger for this public-private alliance was Google’s discovery that the Chinese had hacked its infrastructure. However, the NSA already had a keen interest in all things Google. It struggled with the demands of tracking objects and discerning patterns in Internet time. The NSA was actively developing the same tools and capabilities that allowed Google to search and analyze masses of data at warp speed.

A New Business Model

The U.S. Justice Department kept the partnership secret, but news reports, court documents, and eventually the Snowden leaks revealed a picture of interdependence and collaboration. As former director of the NSA Mike McConnell put it, “Recent reports of possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts — and shared challenges — that we are likely to see in the future… Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must be similarly seamless.” The NSA developed its own software to mimic the Google infrastructure, uses Google “cookies” to identify targets for hacking, and widely accesses emails and other data through the PRISM program, the costs of which it covered for Google and other Internet firms.

Google and Facebook had led the way in colonizing the new zone with a commercial logic based on surveillance. Now the Google-NSA alliance added new layers and capabilities, as well as a complex public-private dimension that remains poorly understood. Whatever the details might be, the new logic spread to other companies and applications, driving the growth and success of operations in the new zone.

Despite this growth, it’s been difficult to grasp the changing social relations that are produced in the new zone associated with Google’s new commercial logic. There are two reasons for this. First, the companies move faster than individuals or democratic public institutions can follow. Second, its operations are designed to be undetectable. It’s this later point that I want to focus on for a moment.

Google’s Radical Politics

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. The difference in framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider solutions.

In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect. Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.

I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything they’ve multiplied. The difference now is how these rights are distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few. On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency. They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

A pre-modern absolutism

Finally – and this is key – the new concentration of privacy rights is institutionalized in the automatic undetectable functions of a global infrastructure that most of the world’s people also happen to think is essential for basic social participation. This turns ordinary life into the daily renewal of a 21st century Faustian pact.

It is difficult to appreciate the global reach and implications of this rights grab. Leaving aside whether or not it crosses the threshold of “revolution,” it is a form of radical politics that has engineered a significant redistribution of power in just a few years based on the expropriation of widely held privacy rights and the choices they entail. This has been accomplished through a unique assembly of public and private actors and interests that operate outside the auspices of legitimate democratic mechanisms. In some respects, the social relations that emerge from this rights grab are best compared to that of a pre-modern absolutism.

We have been caught off guard. Neither we as individuals nor our public institutions have a clear grasp of these new relationships, their implications, the relevant paths to action, or the goals to achieve. There are good reasons for so much confusion and dismay. The dynamics I describe have occurred in a blank area that is not easily captured by our existing social, economic, and political categories. They extend far beyond the realm of economics and the old debates about business monopolies and competitive practices. The new business operations reach beyond our wallets into the very essence of our lives. They elude our mental models and defy our rational expectations to such an extent that we end up questioning our own witness and powers of evaluation. Unfortunately, the situation is about to get worse as Google’s radical politics spread from cyberspace to the real world.

Reality is the Next Big Thing

What is Google up to next? We know it’s secret, but here is how it looks to me. Google is no longer content with the data business. Its next step is to build an even more radical “reality business.” Google sees “reality” as the next big thing that it can carve up and sell. In the data business, the payoff is in data patterns that help target ads. In the reality business, the payoff is in shaping and communicating real life behaviors of people and things in millions of ways that drive revenue to Google. The business model is expanding to encompass the digital you as well as the actual you. The scene is changing from virtual reality to, well, reality. Unsurprisingly, the two entities at the vanguard of this new wave are Google and the NSA.

The “reality business” reflects a shift in the frontier of data science from data mining to “reality mining.” This new approach was pioneered over the last decade at the MIT Media Lab. Now it’s migrating to military intelligence and commercial applications. In a 2011 paper, MIT Professor Alex Pentland explains the value of reality mining. “We must reinvent societies’ systems within a control framework.” He notes that this will require “exponential growth in data about human behavior.” In another paper, Pentland explains that the proliferation of sensors, mobile phones, and other data capture devices will provide the “eyes and ears” of a “world-spanning living organism.” “Where do people eat? Work? Hang out?” – “Distributed sensor networks,” he observes, will provide “a God’s eye view of ourselves. For the first time, we can precisely map the behavior of large numbers of people as they go about their daily lives.”

The NSA and other intelligence agencies are already using “pattern of life analysis” to identify threats, including those that might originate within the organization as they hope to head off the next Edward Snowden. A range of software companies, some spun off from or funded by the intelligence agencies, provide capabilities in patterns-of-life activity and activity-based intelligence analysis.

Reality is the new product

Google’s ambitions in this new arena appear to be limitless. In 2012 Brin/Page/Schmidt hired computer scientist Ray Kurzweil to lead engineering. Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor, is a proselytizer for the idea that computers can develop consciousness. “Future machines will be human,” he wrote, “Most of the intelligence of our civilization will ultimately be nonbiological.” Kurzweil wants to turn “the next decade’s ‘unrealistic’ visions into reality” at Google. The firm has purchased most of the top machine learning and robotics companies to build what has been described as the “greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on earth.” It paid richly for a company that produces high altitude drones as well as Nest Labs, a firm at the forefront of smart devices for the home and considered essential in the new Internet of Things.

All this suggests that Google is building capabilities even more ambitious than reality “mining”. The aim is not merely the God’s eye view, but the God’s eye power to shape and control reality. Google’s glasses, wearables, or self-driving cars have a clear purpose: to inform on where you’ve been, and where you are, and to influence where you’re going. As one expert has suggested, third parties could pay for programming that drives the car to send you to their restaurant, store or political rally .

There are vast opportunities for similar reality mining and shaping through the Internet of Things. This refers to the growing network of smart sensors and Internet enabled devices intended as an intelligent infrastructure for all objects and even bodies. From your baby’s diapers, to your refrigerator, heating system, mattress, lights, walls, coffee mug, and artificial knee –– this will be the smart neural network in which you breathe, eat, sleep, travel, and work. It will perform infinite configurations of actions, observations, suggestions, communications, and interventions all geared to a new product category: reality. Google and others will make money knowing, manipulating, controlling, slicing, and dicing all of it.

Is Reality for Sale?

To make sense of this big puzzle, it helps to have some historical perspective. There are two useful ideas for us in the work of historian Karl Polanyi. He described the rise of a new human conception: the self-regulating market economy. He saw that the market economies of the 19th and 20th centuries depended upon three astonishing mental inventions. He called them “fictions“. The first was that human life can be subordinated to market dynamics and be reborn as “labor.” Second, nature can be subordinated and reborn as “real estate.” Third, that purchasing power can be reborn as “money.” The very possibility of industrial capitalism depended upon the creation of these three critical “fictional commodities.” Life, nature, and exchange had to be turned into things that could be profitably bought and sold.

Google brings us to the precipice of a new development in the scope of the market economy. A fourth fictional commodity is emerging as a dominant characteristic of market dynamics in the 21st century. “Reality” is about to undergo the same kind of fictional transformation and be reborn as “behavior.” This includes the behavior of creatures, their bodies, and their things. It includes actual behavior and data about behavior. It is the world-spanning organism and all the tiniest elements within it.

Polanyi understood that the pure unimpeded operations of a self-regulating market were profoundly destructive. Society required countermeasures to avoid such danger. He called this the “double movement”: “a network of measures and policies…integrated into powerful institutions designed to check the action of the market relative to labor, land, and money.” Regulation, legislation, democratic oversight…these are the critical responses necessary to protect society from a downward spiral. Anticipating the century to come, he urged the strengthening of the double movement, that “every increase in integration in society should thus be accompanied by an increase of freedom…the strengthening of the rights of the individual in society.”

Europe’s Task

This returns us to our starting point. Eric Schmidt and Mathias Döpfners controversy in the F.A.Z. [this magazine] is only the beginning of a disruption that will shake industry, society and citizens. It is a plea for the primacy, urgency, and necessity of a new double movement. It must be stronger, more confident, and more deeply principled than we have yet seen. It must provide a counterweight to a dangerous new absolutism that relies on pervasive, secret, unaccountable power.

We are beyond the realm of economics here. This is not merely a conversation about free markets; it’s a conversation about free people.

It’s an urgent new public conversation that can’t be reduced to 20th century technical debates about Google’s monopoly status or competitive practices. We tend to revert to these old categories in the absence of ready language and law that can help us discern the full implications of what is taking shape. But such specialized professional arguments shift the Google debate from the realm of everyday life and ordinary people to the arcane interests of economists and bureaucrats. They obscure the fact that the issues have shifted from monopolies of products or services to monopolies of rights: rights to privacy and rights to reality. These new forms of power, poorly understood except by their own practitioners, threaten the sovereignty of the democratic social contract.

We are powerful too. Our demands for self-determination are not easily extinguished. We made Google, perhaps by loving it too much. We can unmake it, if we must. The challenge is to understand what is at stake and how quickly things are moving. The need is to come together in our diversity to preserve a future in which many visions can thrive, not just one –– where many rights can flourish, not just some.

Things are moving fast. This is why the world now looks to the E.U. – not to Google – to reverse the growing menace of absolutism and the monopoly of rights. The EU can stand for the double movement. It can represent the future and assert the dominion of democratic rights and the principles of a fair marketplace. These are the precious victories of a centuries-long struggle, and we dare not abandon them now.

The author:  Shoshana Zuboff is the author of The Summons: Our Fight for the Soul of an Information Civilization (forthcoming, 2015). She is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration (retired) at the Harvard Business School and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School. @shoshanazuboff


Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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