Is Google Evil?
By Adam L. Penenberg
October 10, 2006

Google Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two former Stanford geeks who founded the company that has become synonymous with Internet searching, and you’ll find more than a million entries each. But amid the inevitable dump of press clippings, corporate bios, and conference appearances, there’s very little about Page’s and Brin’s personal lives; it’s as if the pair had known all along that Google would change the way we acquire information, and had carefully insulated their lives—putting their homes under other people’s names, choosing unlisted numbers, abstaining from posting anything personal on web pages.

That obsession with privacy may explain Google’s puzzling reaction last year, when Elinor Mills, a reporter with the tech news service cnet, ran a search on Google ceo Eric Schmidt and published the results: Schmidt lived with his wife in Atherton, California, was worth about $1.5 billion, had dumped about $140 million in Google shares that year, was an amateur pilot, and had been to the Burning Man festival. Google threw a fit, claimed that the information was a security threat, and announced it was blacklisting cnet’s reporters for a year. (The company eventually backed down.) It was a peculiar response, especially given that the information Mills published was far less intimate than the details easily found online on every one of us. But then, this is something of a pattern with Google: When it comes to information, it knows what’s best.

From the start, Google’s informal motto has been “Don’t Be Evil,” and the company earned cred early on by going toe-to-toe with Microsoft over desktop software and other issues. But make no mistake. Faced with doing the right thing or doing what is in its best interests, Google has almost always chosen expediency. In 2002, it removed links to an anti-Scientology site after the Church of Scientology claimed copyright infringement. Scores of website operators have complained that Google pulls ads if it discovers words on a page that it apparently has flagged, although it will not say what those words are. In September, Google handed over the records of some users of its social-networking service, Orkut, to the Brazilian government, which was investigating alleged racist, homophobic, and pornographic content.

Google’s stated mission may be to provide “unbiased, accurate, and free access to information,” but that didn’t stop it from censoring its Chinese search engine to gain access to a lucrative market (prompting Bill Gates to crack that perhaps the motto should be “Do Less Evil”). Now that the company is publicly traded, it has a legal responsibility to its shareholders and bottom line that overrides any higher calling.

So the question is not whether Google will always do the right thing—it hasn’t, and it won’t. It’s whether Google, with its insatiable thirst for your personal data, has become the greatest threat to privacy ever known, a vast informational honey pot that attracts hackers, crackers, online thieves, and—perhaps most worrisome of all—a government intent on finding convenient ways to spy on its own citizenry.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to worry about such a threat. “I always thought it was fertile ground for the government to snoop,” ceo Schmidt told a search engine conference in San Jose, California, in August. While Google earned praise from civil libertarians earlier this year when it resisted a Justice Department subpoena for millions of search queries in connection with a child pornography case, don’t expect it will stand up to the government every time: On its website, Google asserts that it “does comply with valid legal process, such as search warrants, court orders, or subpoenas seeking personal information.”

What’s at stake? Over the years, Google has collected a staggering amount of data, and the company cheerfully admits that in nine years of operation, it has never knowingly erased a single search query. It’s the biggest data pack rat west of the nsa, and for good reason: 99 percent of its revenue comes from selling ads that are specifically targeted to a user’s interests. “Google’s entire value proposition is to figure out what people want,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara School of Law and director of the High Tech Law Institute. “But to read our minds, they need to know a lot about us.”

Every search engine gathers information about its users—primarily by sending us “cookies,” or text files that track our online movements. Most cookies expire within a few months or years. Google’s, though, don’t expire until 2038. Until then, when you use the company’s search engine or visit any of myriad affiliated sites, it will record what you search for and when, which links you click on, which ads you access. Google’s cookies can’t identify you by name, but they log your computer’s IP address; by way of metaphor, Google doesn’t have your driver’s license number, but it knows the license plate number of the car you are driving. And search queries are windows into our souls, as 658,000 aol users learned when their search profiles were mistakenly posted on the Internet: Would user 1997374 have searched for information on better erections or cunnilingus if he’d known that aol was recording every keystroke? Would user 22155378 have keyed in “marijuana detox” over and over knowing someone could play it all back for the world to see? If you’ve ever been seized by a morbid curiosity after a night of hard drinking, a search engine knows—and chances are it’s Google, which owns roughly half of the entire search market and processes more than 3 billion queries a month.

And Google knows far more than that. If you are a Gmail user, Google stashes copies of every email you send and receive. If you use any of its other products—Google Maps, Froogle, Google Book Search, Google Earth, Google Scholar, Talk, Images, Video, and News—it will keep track of which directions you seek, which products you shop for, which phrases you research in a book, which satellite photos and news stories you view, and on and on. Served up à la carte, this is probably no big deal. Many websites stow snippets of your data. The problem is that there’s nothing to prevent Google from combining all of this information to create detailed dossiers on its customers, something the company admits is possible in principle. Soon Google may even be able to keep track of users in the real world: Its latest move is into free wifi, which will require it to know your whereabouts (i.e., which router you are closest to).

Google insists that it uses individual data only to provide targeted advertising. But history shows that information seldom remains limited to the purpose for which it was collected. Accordingly, some privacy advocates suggest that Google and other search companies should stop hoarding user queries altogether: Internet searches, argues Lillie Coney of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are part of your protected personal space just like your physical home. In February, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation to this effect, but Republicans have kept it stalled in committee. Google, which only recently retained a lobbying firm in Washington, is among the tech companies fighting the measure.

When I first contacted Google for this story, a company publicist insisted I provide a list of detailed questions, in writing; when I said that I had a problem with a source dictating the terms for an interview, he claimed that everyone who covers Google—including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—submits advance questions. (A Times spokeswoman told me the paper sees no ethical problems with such a procedure, though individual reporters’ decisions may vary; an editor in charge of editorial standards at the Journal said the same thing.) The Google flack assured me that this was so he could find the best person for me to talk to—more information for Google, so that Google could better serve me.

Eventually he agreed to put me in touch, sans scripted questions, with Nicole Wong, Google’s associate corporate counsel. I asked her if the company had ever been subpoenaed for user records, and whether it had complied. She said yes, but wouldn’t comment on how many times. Google’s website says that as a matter of policy the company does “not publicly discuss the nature, number or specifics of law enforcement requests.”

So can you trust Google only as far as you can trust the Bush administration? “I don’t know,” Wong replied. “I’ve never been asked that question before.”

Laptops give up their secrets to U.S. customs agents
By Joe Sharkey
October 24, 2006

NEW YORK A lot of business travelers are walking around with laptops that contain private corporate information that their employers really do not want outsiders to see.

Until recently, their biggest concern was that someone might steal the laptop. But now there’s a new worry – that the laptop will be seized or its contents scrutinized at U.S. customs and immigration checkpoints upon entering the United States from abroad.

Although much of the evidence for the confiscations remains anecdotal, it’s a hot topic this week among more than a thousand corporate travel managers and travel industry officials meeting in Barcelona at a conference of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

Last week, an informal survey by the association, which has about 2,500 members worldwide, indicated that almost 90 percent of its members were not aware that customs officials have the authority to scrutinize the contents of travelers’ laptops and even confiscate laptops for a period of time, without giving a reason.

“One member who responded to our survey said she has been waiting for a year to get her laptop and its contents back,” said Susan Gurley, the group’s executive director. “She said it was randomly seized. And since she hasn’t been arrested, I assume she was just a regular business traveler, not a criminal.”

Appeals are under way in some cases, but the law is clear. “They don’t need probable cause to perform these searches under the current law,” said Tim Kane, a Washington lawyer who is researching the matter for corporate clients. “They can do it without suspicion or without really revealing their motivations.”

In some cases, random inspections of laptops have yielded evidence of possession of child pornography. Laptops may be scrutinized and subject to a “forensic analysis” under the so-called border search exemption, which allows searches of people entering the United States and their possessions “without probable cause, reasonable suspicion or a warrant,” a federal court ruled in July. In that case, the hard drive of a man’s laptop was found to contain images of child pornography.

No one is defending criminal possession of child pornography, or even suggesting that the government has nefarious intent in conducting random searches of a traveler’s laptop, Gurley said.

“But it appears, from information we have, that agents have a lot of discretion in doing these searches, and that there’s a whole spectrum of reasons for doing them,” she added.

The association is asking the government for better guidelines so corporate policies on traveling with proprietary information can be re-evaluated. It is also asking whether corporations need to reduce the proprietary data that travelers carry.

“We need to be able to better inform our business travelers what the processes are if their laptops and data are seized – what happens to it, how do you get it back,” Gurley said.

She added: “The issue is what happens to the proprietary business information that might be on a laptop. Is information copied? Is it returned? We understand that the U.S. government needs to protect its borders. But we want to have transparent information so business travelers know what to do. Should they leave business proprietary information at home?”

Besides the possibility for misuse of proprietary information, travel executives are also concerned that a seized computer, and the information it holds, becomes unavailable to its user for a time. One remedy some companies are considering is telling travelers returning to the United States with critical information on their laptop hard drives to encrypt the data and e-mail it to themselves, which at least preserves access to the information, although it does not guard its privacy.

In one recent case in California, a federal court went against the trend, ruling that laptop searches were a serious invasion of privacy.

“People keep all sorts of personal information on computers,” the court ruling said, citing diaries, personal letters, financial records, lawyers’ confidential client information and reporters’ notes on confidential sources.

That court ruled, in that specific case, that “the correct standard requires that any border search of the information stored on a person’s electronic storage device be based, at a minimum, on a reasonable suspicion.”

In its informal survey last week, the association also found that 87 percent of its members would be less likely to carry confidential business or personal information on international trips now that they were aware of how easily laptop contents could be searched.

“We are telling our members that they should prepare for the eventuality that this could happen, and they have to think more about how they handle proprietary information,” Gurley said. “Potentially, this is going to have a real effect on how international business is conducted.”

Glitches cited in early voting
Early voters are urged to cast their ballots with care following scattered reports of problems with heavily used machines.
October 28, 2006

After a week of early voting, a handful of glitches with electronic voting machines have drawn the ire of voters, reassurances from elections supervisors — and a caution against the careless casting of ballots.

Several South Florida voters say the choices they touched on the electronic screens were not the ones that appeared on the review screen — the final voting step.

Election officials say they aren’t aware of any serious voting issues. But in Broward County, for example, they don’t know how widespread the machine problems are because there’s no process for poll workers to quickly report minor issues and no central database of machine problems.

In Miami-Dade, incidents are logged and reported daily and recorded in a central database. Problem machines are shut down.

“In the past, Miami-Dade County would send someone to correct the machine on site,” said Lester Sola, county supervisor of elections. Now, he said, “We close the machine down and put a seal on it.”

Debra A. Reed voted with her boss on Wednesday at African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale. Her vote went smoothly, but boss Gary Rudolf called her over to look at what was happening on his machine. He touched the screen for gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, a Democrat, but the review screen repeatedly registered the Republican, Charlie Crist.

That’s exactly the kind of problem that sends conspiracy theorists into high gear — especially in South Florida, where a history of problems at the polls have made voters particularly skittish.

A poll worker then helped Rudolf, but it took three tries to get it right, Reed said.

“I’m shocked because I really want . . . to trust that the issues with irregularities with voting machines have been resolved,” said Reed, a paralegal. “It worries me because the races are so close.”

Broward Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Mary Cooney said it’s not uncommon for screens on heavily used machines to slip out of sync, making votes register incorrectly. Poll workers are trained to recalibrate them on the spot — essentially, to realign the video screen with the electronics inside. The 15-step process is outlined in the poll-workers manual.

“It is resolved right there at the early-voting site,” Cooney said.

Broward poll workers keep a log of all maintenance done on machines at each site. But the Supervisor of Elections office doesn’t see that log until the early voting period ends. And a machine isn’t taken out of service unless the poll clerk decides it’s a chronic poor performer that can’t be fixed.

Cooney said no machines have been removed during early voting, and she is not aware of any serious problems.

In Miami-Dade, two machines have been taken out of service during early voting. No votes were lost, Sola said.

Joan Marek, 60, a Democrat from Hollywood, was also stunned to see Charlie Crist on her ballot review page after voting on Thursday. “Am I on the voting screen again?” she wondered. “Well, this is too weird.”

Marek corrected her ballot and alerted poll workers at the Hollywood satellite courthouse, who she said told her they’d had previous problems with the same machine.

Poll workers did some work on her machine when she finished voting, Marek said. But no report was made to the Supervisor of Elections office and the machine was not removed, Cooney said.

Workers at the Hollywood poll said there had been no voting problems on Friday.

Mauricio Raponi wanted to vote for Democrats across the board at the Lemon City Library in Miami on Thursday. But each time he hit the button next to the candidate, the Republican choice showed up. Raponi, 53, persevered until the machine worked. Then he alerted a poll worker.

Are we the Mongols of the Information Age?
The future of U.S. power rests in its Industrial Age military adapting to decentralized adversaries.
By Max Boot
October 29, 2006

GREAT POWERS cease to be great for many reasons. In addition to the causes frequently debated — economics, culture, disease, geography — there is an overarching trend. Over the last 500 years, the fate of nations has been increasingly tied to their success, or lack thereof, in harnessing revolutions in military affairs.

These are periods of momentous change when new technologies combine with new doctrines and new forms of organization to transform not only the face of battle but also the nature of the state and of the international system. Because we are in the middle of the fourth major revolution since 1500 — the Information Revolution — it is important to grasp the nature and consequences of these upheavals.

Until the 15th century, the mightiest military forces belonged to the Mongols. But strong as they were in the days of bows and arrows, the Mongols could not keep pace with the spread of gunpowder weapons and the rise of centralized governments that used them. They fell behind, and Europe surged to the forefront. In 1450, Europeans controlled just 15% of the world’s surface. By 1914 — following not only the Gunpowder Revolution but also the first Industrial Revolution — their domain had swollen to an astounding 84% of the globe.

Not all European states were equal, of course. Some early leaders in gunpowder technology — for instance, Spain and Portugal — were also-rans when industrialization began in the 18th century. At least Spain and Portugal managed to maintain their independence. Numerous others — from Poland to the Italian city-states — were not so lucky. They endured prolonged occupation by foreigners more skilled than they were at new forms of warfare.

The big winners of the Gunpowder Revolution (from roughly 1500 to 1700) were the northern European states, from Britain to Russia. But the Romanovs, Habsburgs and Ottomans did not survive the cataclysmic conflict of the first Industrial Age — World War I — and their empires collapsed, even as Germany and Japan were catapulting themselves into the upper rank of nation-states largely through their growing military expertise. World War II — the major conflict of the second Industrial Revolution, defined by the internal combustion engine, airplane and radio — further shook up the international balance of power.

The conventional assumption is that the outcome of World War II was virtually foreordained: The Allies won because they were bigger and richer than the Axis. There is some truth to this. But by 1942, Germany, Italy and Japan controlled most of the natural resources of East Asia and Europe. This would have allowed them to match the Allies if they had been more adept at marshaling their military and economic power. The Soviet Union and the United States — the biggest beneficiaries of the second Industrial Revolution — did a better job not just in managing wartime production. They also grabbed the lead in the use of such key weapons as the tank (the Soviet Union) and the long-range bomber and aircraft carrier (the U.S.). There are many reasons why once-dominant powers such as France and Britain had become second-tier ones by 1945, but central among them was their failure to exploit advances in weaponry during the inter-war years.

The Information Revolution of the late 20th century upset the seemingly stable postwar order. The Soviet Union had no Silicon Valley and could not compete with the United States in incorporating the computer into its economic or military spheres. U.S. prowess at waging war in the Information Age was showcased in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which, along with the collapse of the Soviet empire, left the United States standing alone as a global hegemon.

But if history teaches any lesson, it is that no military lead is ever safe. Challengers will always find a way to copy or buy the best weapons systems or develop tactics that will offset their effect. Our most formidable enemies, Al Qaeda and its ilk, have done both. They are using relatively simple information technology — the Internet, satellite television, cellphones — to organize a global insurgency. By using such weapons as hijacked airliners and bombs detonated by garage-door openers, they are finding cracks in our defenses.

We have an insurmountable advantage in high-end military hardware. No other state is building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, stealth fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles. In fact, we spend more on the development and testing of new weapons — $71 billion this year — than any other country spends on its entire defense. But all that spending produces weapons systems that aren’t much good for pacifying Baghdad or Kandahar.

Technology isn’t irrelevant to the global war on terror. We can use powerful surveillance systems to break up terrorist plots. And “smart bombs” can be invaluable for dealing with the perpetrators. But our enemies can stymie multibillion-dollar spy platforms by using couriers instead of satellite phones, which helps explain why Osama bin Laden remains on the loose.

New revolutions in military affairs, possibly centered on biotechnology and cyber-war, promise to give smaller states or sub-state actors more destructive capacity. Imagine the havoc that could be caused by a genetically engineered contagion combining the worst properties of, say, smallpox and the Ebola virus. Or imagine how much damage our enemies could inflict by using computer viruses — or directed-energy weapons — to immobilize critical bits of our civilian or military computer networks. In theory, it’s possible to crash stock markets, send airliners plowing into the ground and blind our most advanced weapons systems.

The most threatening weapon of all harks back to an earlier military revolution. Nuclear bombs haven’t been used since 1945, but given their proliferation around the world, it will only be a matter of time. Our scientific sophistication gives us a reasonable chance of shooting down a nuclear-tipped missile, but a nuclear suitcase smuggled into the U.S. would be much harder to detect.

To stop such stealthy threats, we need to get much better at human intelligence, counterinsurgency, information operations and related disciplines. We need more speakers of Arabic and Pashto, more experts who understand tribal relations in Iraq’s Anbar province and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, more diplomats who can win over audiences on Al Jazeera. And we need to set them loose without having to worry about a burdensome bureaucracy micromanaging their every move.

It may sound melodramatic, but the future of U.S. power rests on our ability to remake a government still structured for Industrial Age warfare to do battle with decentralized adversaries in the Information Age. After all, aren’t we the mightiest, richest nation in history? How could our hegemony possibly be endangered? That’s what previous superpowers thought too. But their dominance lasted only until they missed a revolutionary turn in military technology and tactics.