Google CEO Eric Schmidt is more than justified in his criticism this week of NSA surveillance. An explosive report in the Washington Post last week revealed that the spy agency, as well as demanding data on millions of online communications from tech firms through FISA court-approved processes, has also reportedly been hacking the links between Google and Yahoo’s data centers around the world, to gain secret backdoor access to many millions of users’ emails and data.
“It’s really outrageous that the NSA was looking between the Google data centers, if that’s true,” Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal, noting. “The steps that the organization was willing to do without good judgment to pursue its mission and potentially violate people’s privacy, it’s not OK.”
Mr. Schmidt, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, please don’t take this as a pat on the back. Google’s position since the slew of NSA revelations began being published has been at best a P.R. scramble, at worst an exercise in gross hypocrisy. It was, after all, Schmidt who in 2009 said “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Such an attitude — what I’ve described before as a dangerous Silicon Valley transparency ethic, smacking of privilege — contributed significantly to the crystallization of the surveillance state as status quo. Google’s recent public efforts to push for greater transparency around NSA programs, and Schmidt’s outrage over secret NSA data center hacking, should not exempt the firm from censure over their crucial role in building the U.S.’s sprawling surveillance nexus.
Google is happy with the vast surveillance dragnets that it knowingly contributes to in response to FISC orders. But when it comes to mass surveillance it didn’t know about or have some control over, the tech giant is “outraged.”
No doubt, the allegations that the NSA relied on a presidential order to gather vast swaths of data outside of the (already weak) domestic restrictions on surveillance would be significant if proven true. The spy agency has contested the reports, which were based on leaked NSA documents obtained via Edward Snowden. But Schmidt’s response is correct: If the NSA truly is covertly hacking into data centers, we have proof-positive that the agency is doing literally everything possible to feed its unbounded hoarding complex.
Schmidt’s outrage is justified and hypocritical. Recall Google’s open letter in June to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking to be able to publish more national security data requests following early NSA revelations. “Google has nothing to hide,” the missive noted.
So, Mr. Schmidt, what is the locus of your latest outrage? Is it the fact of unbounded surveillance? That can’t be it — Google was knowingly taking part in that sort of operation already. As I wrote in June, “Google is being genuine with its desire for greater transparency — but in so doing it performs the great violence of not recognizing the complicated nexus of power that gets to determine what or who is evil or good, and so what or who can be transparent.” It seems at least parsimonious, then, to read Schmidt’s outrage as less to do with abrogated privacy protections, and more to do with the shape of surveillance outside of Silicon Valley’s control.