Monday, July 23, 2012
Spooky Google Geeks Planning Covert Ops in Mexico?
Google Ideas' two-day conference on how to best use
technology to fight criminal networks was a forum for tough, anti-mafia rhetoric, but competing interests and few concrete
proposals make the proposed geek-government-activist partnership more difficult than advertised.
If there was doubt about Google's resolve in fighting what it calls "Illicit Networks," some of it
was washed away with a few words from Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt on day one of the conference: "At the end of the
day, there really are bad people, and you have to go in and arrest them and kill them."
The statement, which came during the question-and-answer session and was cut from the video version below, seemed
to stun all but Google Ideas' own employees who have seen the more combative side of Schmidt on his recent trips to Ciudad
Juarez, among other places. The conference continued apace with panelists and Google staff alike touting the need to fight
the worldwide problem, in large part through technology.
For his part,
Schmidt went on to stress the ubiquity and value of cellular phones as well as the use of "packet switching," a
means to break information into pieces and distribute it to the right people and places in a way that provides anonymity to
the sender and pushes for maximum accountability of the people who receive and process that information. In this way, Google
hopes, it can help ensure that timely, accurate information about criminal activities goes to responsible, responsive government
It's a laudable and important goal, and one that Mexico's
Security Minister Alejandro Poire picked up on day two, saying he and his team, in the four months before the incoming government
takes over, would push to use 95 million cellular phones in Mexico in the fight against organized crime.
"If you see something, cell (phone) something," Poire joked about the slogan he
might employ, which he admitted had no Spanish-language equivalent. (See all available conference video here.)
But the well-choreographed (possibly
multi-million dollar) conference was more than a government-Google love fest. Numerous victims gave live testimony of their
experiences, and some offered words of inspiration. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) presented its latest work on the trafficking and trade of human body parts. (Full disclosure: I am an ICIJ member).
Mixed into the conference were a few of Google's consulting partners, most notably Palantir, a software design
firm that provided the tech tools for ICIJ to sift through and present its investigative story; and Caerus, a private security
business that is most famous for providing the US government advice on how to identify and neutralize the most notorious Iraqi
and foreign terrorist cells operating during the worst of that country's war.
These partners may be the biggest winners of this event. Following the ICIJ/Palantir presentation, an INTERPOL representative
asked how he could get information on the technology used for ICIJ's report. The answer, as I am sure he found out in
the plush Four Seasons Hotel hallways between sessions, was not cheap.
power to convene was also evident and, like many conferences, may have been the biggest takeaway for the rest of us. Fighting
organized crime requires coordination across numerous platforms and agencies, and Google brought them to one place to trade
smiles, business cards, and ideas for working together.
Most of the participants,
me included, felt like we'd been invited to hang with the coolest kids on the block. So afraid of the popular kids were
we, that Twitter activity around the event (#infosummit2012) was at a minimum and utterly devoid of the snarky and caustic commentary that makes
covering such conferences so fun (almost to the point where we could have been our own case study in self-censorship).
But the underlying, and unspoken, question during the conference was just what is Google
gaining from picking a fight with organized crime. And as it is for numerous Google initiatives (collecting information on
us to hone their search engine, scanning books, etc.), the answer remains somewhat elusive.
For starters, Google Ideas is a strange entity. Google says it's a think/do tank, but it may be competing for
attention within its own company. It is one of at least three Google outside initiatives, which also include Google for Nonprofits, and Google.org. It is populated with mostly non-engineers and has its offices in New York City.
Its top two, Jared Cohen and Scott Carpenter, are former US State Department officials who
are more Beltway than Silicon Valley, and that is where they think their audience is. Cohen and Schmidt, for example, penned
their platform editorial for the "Illicit Networks" campaign in the Washington Post.
Last year's inaugural Google
Ideas' conference was about terrorist networks. And when quizzed about why they picked organized crime for this year's,
Google Ideas team members said they have "complete" autonomy to decide on the themes they will tackle, before going
to the upper echelons for the green light.
But while "Illicit Networks"
is a sexy, headline-grabbing topic, it does not come without risks. Schmidt focused his comments about what actions are needed
in Mexico, but the bigger risk may be needling North Korea, and by default, North Korea's only ally on the planet, China.
The conference included ten North Korean defectors, five of whom told horrifying stories of what Google called a "mafia
state," only partly skirting the elephant in the room -- China's tolerance and perhaps participation in these activities.
In general terms, conference organizers emphasized that the event was about connecting different
worlds -- those on the proverbial "front lines" of fighting illicit trafficking with talented engineers.
"That's a marriage we want to make happen," Google Ideas' head Cohen said
during one interlude.
In some instances, this courtship was already in
full swing, Poire's and Schmidt's synchronized speeches being the most obvious example. But ICIJ and Palantir, which
has a pro bono arm to work with the less endowed, were even further along in their relationship.
During so-called "break-out" sessions, in which the carefully selected participants were grouped in smaller
numbers to workshop problems, these potential "marriages" became even more evident. Interpol led a session on creating
a Global Registry. Lookingglass, a cyber-security consulting firm, led a workshop on vulnerabilities in cyber supply chains.
Caerus tried to apply its network theory in northern Mexico.
It was not
always clear who the beneficiary of these workshops was, and some participants worried (in whispers, of course) whether they
were simply being pilfered of ideas for the for-profit side. Such is the difficulty in bringing together stakeholders with
different interests and end goals.
In addition, the conference seemed
to bog down most when conference participants really tried to figure out how exactly to employ technology to make people safe
from organized crime. Google nearly always emphasized scale, a problematic approach.
Take, for instance, violence in Mexico. Even today, most of that violence is concentrated in small, mostly poverty-stricken
or remote areas, making the need to reach 95 million people completely unnecessary and making Poire's slogan seem more
like a bald-faced marketing pitch than a matter of life and death. What's more, Schmidt and Poire's application requires
a smart phone, something few of the poorer residents in these areas have.
is to say nothing of the dangers of having these phones in these areas. In Colombia, 400 people have been killed for cellular phones this year. In Guatemala, the government registers four cell phone thefts per hour.
When confronted with these realities,
the conference organizers, and most participants, seem to fall back on what appears to be the prevailing theory: more information
is better. This theology is most often applied to crowd-sourced mapping, another area that seemed poorly thought out and naively
illustrated: Mapping disaster areas and conflict zones are two very different ball games. In some instances, more information
makes people more afraid, not less.
The examples of transferring post-disaster
mapping to mapping of conflict zones stood alongside other unchallenged and frankly disturbing assumptions about prioritizing
the collection and diffusion of information over almost every other matter. During one session, for example, Caerus CEO David
Kilcullen victoriously recounted how anti-Gaddafi forces had collected bomb targets in Libya via school children's recommendations
on Google Maps.
Still, Google must be applauded for diving headfirst into
this issue. It does not need to do this. It already helps hundreds of organizations, including ours, do our day-to-day work
on this issue without doing anything outside of its commercial strategies. Google docs, calendars, readers, photo-organizers,
comms-systems, maps, and other products make our daily stories and investigations about crime in the Americas easier to produce,
display, and distribute. That's not an advertisement, that's a fact.
whether the company can move from there to directly addressing the issues of organized crime, even after an impressive conference,
is still an open question, as are its motives for even considering it.
This commentary, "Why is Google Picking a Fight with the Mafia?" was first published
in InSight Crime, on Jul. 20, 2012 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight
Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America
and the Caribbean.
Steven Dudley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director/Head of Research Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at InSight Crime. As well, Dudley is a senior researcher at the Fundación Ideas para la
Paz (FIP) in Bogota, Colombia, and a senior fellow at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies
in Washington, D.C.