The company once known for its “don’t be evil” motto is now in bed with the spy agency known for the mass surveillance of American citizens.
The National Security Agency is widely understood to have the government’s biggest and smartest collection of geeks — the guys that are more skilled at network warfare than just about anyone on the planet. So, in a sense, it’s only natural that Google would turn to the NSA after the company was hit by an ultrasophisticated hack attack. After all, the military has basically done the same thing, putting the NSA in charge of its new “Cyber Command.” The Department of Homeland Security is leaning heavily on the NSA to secure .gov networks.
But there’s a problem. The NSA and its predecessors also have a long history of spying on huge numbers of people, both at home and abroad. During the Cold War, the agency worked with companies like Western Union to intercept and read millions of telegrams. During the war on terror years, the NSA teamed up with the telecommunications companies to eavesdrop on customers’ phone calls and internet traffic right from the telcos’ switching stations. And even after the agency pledged to clean up its act — and was given wide new latitude to spy on whom they liked – the NSA was still caught “overcollecting” on U.S. citizens. According to The New York Times, the agency even “tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant.”
All of which makes the NSA a particularly untrustworthy partner for a company that is almost wholly reliant on its customers’ trust and goodwill. We all know that Google automatically reads our Gmail and scans our Google Calendars and dives into our Google searches, all in an attempt to put the most relevant ads in front of us. But we’ve tolerated the automated intrusions, because Google’s products are so good, and we believed that the company was sincere in its “don’t be evil” mantra.
That’s a lot harder to swallow, when Google starts working cheek-to-jowl with the overcollectors. The company pinkie-swears that its agreement with the NSA won’t violate the company’s privacy policies or compromise user data. Those promises are a little hard to believe, given the NSA’s track record of getting private enterprises to cooperate, and Google’s willingness to take this first step.
Google may need help in fighting off these hacks. But turning to Ft. Meade could wind up permanently damaging the company’s image — and the foundation of its incredible success. Already, the Russian press are talking about Google’s decision to spy with NSA, for instance. Hackers might be able to compromise some of Google’s services, for a little while. The association with the NSA could permanently cripple the company. The telegram companies and the old-school telcos were virtually monopolies; customers had nowhere to turn, if they wanted private communications. Bing and Yahoo Mail are just a click away.