One of the Investment Experts over at SeekingAlpha.com posted an article today, about a newly-public Data Analysis company called Palantir Technologies (Nasdaq ticker PLTR). In the introduction to that article, he explored the history of the Big Tech companies who have been in the news lately, in relation to censorship on the Internet. This article just blew me away. If you thought that Google was powerful, just wait until you read this article. I highly recommend that all my readers read the entire article. Here are some quotes from the piece, that might have you quaking in your boots, and re-evaluating how you view the companies that provide ways to connect with others, and search for information on the Internet.
As the digital revolution reached its inflection point, data became the new oil. This data powers modern society, a quantification of the real world that exists as digital information inside computers and networks. It is used to create artificial intelligence. What we see as digital photos, posts, or documents are complex collections of numbers that can be mathematically analyzed. For companies whose business models are built on refining and selling consumer data, irresponsibly extracting this data has led to a dangerous erosion of privacy that is this new era’s equivalent of an ecological crisis.
Longstanding tensions over data and privacy have escalated into a ‘corporate war’, dividing companies into ideological factions that reflect their business models. Apple is rapidly deploying new privacy features as Google consolidates its reach. Palantir is offering a platform that puts the power of data analysis into the hands of companies and government organizations, effectively society at large, while questioning the future of the few in Silicon Valley that hold it today. Palantir’s partnership with IBMand integration with AWS are strong indications that a powerful coalition is forming. This coalition will challenge the ambitions of Google and Facebook, which have built surveillance capabilities that not even the U.S. government is allowed to have.
This is not the story of ambitious young entrepreneurs. This is the story of how private versions of some of the most advanced defense projects ever conceived were built by a company that has sought to influence US politics, unilaterally engaged in clandestine activities, and developed its own foreign policy… all in the pursuit of creating artificial intelligence. It is a complex matrix of competing objectives, technologies, and business models that investors will need to carefully consider in order to navigate the 2020s.
This is a power struggle that will have significant consequences. The most powerful companies in the world are fighting for control over the world’s most important asset: Data. If the computer is the greatest tool mankind has ever created, then the outcome of this corporate conflict will inevitably define the future of humanity.
Google was just one of a series of projects, often classified, that were backed by the NSA and DARPA in the 1990s. As PhD students at Stanford, the work of Google’s founders was overseen by two DoD officials and received funding from DARPA indirectly through a federal initiative.
Projects internally pursued by DARPA were consolidated into the Information Awareness Office in 2002. One such project, the Total Information Awareness Program, planned to use predictive modeling and data mining to spot terrorists. Google uses similar techniques to identify consumers interested in a particular product. These were very new ideas at the time. The IAO was later defunded over fears that it was too Orwellian and could lead to mass surveillance of US citizens, transferring parts of TIA to the NSA.
While Google was scanning books for the benign sounding “Project Ocean”, two other technology companies emerged that also resembled elements of DARPA and NSA projects. Facebook was famously founded by a Harvard undergrad student, but closely resembles another DARPA project known as Lifelog, emerging just months after the program was cancelled. Palantir was spun out of PayPal in 2003, and became deeply embedded in the DoD activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, it incorporates elements from a number of advanced projects that will be discussed in detail later.
At the same time that the NSA began scaling DARPA’s vision for “total information awareness” with programs such as Stellarwind (2004), Topsail(2005), and PRISM (2007) , Google used surveillance equipment onboard vehicles for used for Street View and Google Maps to tap and collect data from unsecured WiFi networks in 30 countries. Google publicly stated that this data was collected by mistake, but an investigation revealed it was intentional. Google was later fined for stonewalling the FCC’s investigation. The privacy concerns surrounding Google Maps are another example where scale trumped controversy.
As the internet grew, Google’s ability to harvest mass amounts of data on consumers, analyze their habits, then micro-target them with ads, made the company both incredibly profitable and politically powerful. Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt became deeply embedded in US politics, spending the day of the 2008 election inside of the Obama campaign’s “war room”. In 2010, Schmidt co-authored a paper for the Council on Foreign Relations on “connectivity and the diffusion of power”. The concepts in this paper were expanded on in a book titled The New Digital Age, which received endorsements from Henry Kissinger, General Michael Hayden, Tony Blair, Mohamed El-Erian, and Elon Musk. Musk later inferred that Google is the only company he is afraid of.
This book could be thought of as Google’s foreign policy declaration, given that it discusses the creation of “virtual statehood”. It advocates for the centralization of one’s life into a “system of information management and decision making”, presumably Google, and suggests that some governments will enforce internet identity policies similar to the real-name policy of Google+.
In Schmidt’s book, The New Digital Age, he describes the Internet of the future.
There will be a record of all activity and associations online, and everything added to the Internet will become part of repository of permanent information… …People will be held responsible for their virtual associations, past and present.
People have a responsibility as consumers and individuals to read a company’s policies and positions on privacy and security before they willingly share information. As the proliferation of companies continues, citizens will have more options and thus due diligence will be more important than ever.
Google’s raises the suspicion that it intended to use warzones in the Middle East as a testing ground for the kinds of ideas described in The New Digital Age, as the book also contains entire chapters on both “the future of revolution” and “the future of reconstruction”. Indeed, Schmidt and Cohen made “secret visits” to Iraq, according to CNBC. Today, Jigsaw is focused on countering white supremacy and domestic terrorism. This is particularly alarming with the current rhetoric out of Washington. Jigsaw’s interests are remarkably aligned with calls for a new war on domestic terrorism, just months after the Patriot Act expired.
The author then describes the development of Facebook, and how Google and Facebook differ from Apple and Microsoft. This is a distinction that most of my readers will already be aware of.
Today, these massive constellations of computers directly control much of society, but there are important nuances. For companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, “the user” is the customer. They buy hardware from Apple. They buy software from Microsoft. Amazon provides services; it’s a platform for digital commerce. For Facebook and Google, the relationship is inverted; the user is the product. They receive access to free software and services, in exchange for allowing these companies to create highly detailed psychographic profiles for advertising purposes, and bulk data collection for purposes of developing AI. Google began crawling through Facebook as far back as 2007.
You’re not really paranoid, if they really are after you.
Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Clapper: No, sir.
Wyden: It does not?
Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.
The author describes the events after the Edward Snowden leaks of classified material. I have to say, that this description has made me look at what Snowden did in a whole new light.
These events only emboldened Google further. Shortly after the meeting, Google unified its services. This meant that data collected on users of one particular Google product or service would no longer be siloed, it would be shared across the entire company. Your YouTube history was now being matched up with your Google searches. Signing into one service was the same as signing into them all.
At the same time that Apple was fighting with the FBI over the lack of a backdoor into the iPhone, Google dropped one of the last privacy protections, officially removing a policy that kept personally identifiable web history separate from other data. A year later, it was discovered that Google could track cell phones even when location services are turned off. A study by a professor at Vanderbilt found Google’s phones transmit significantly more data back to Google servers, and much more frequently, when compared to Apple’s iPhone. Google’s Android phone made a request to communicate with Google servers every 1.5 minutes.
The author describes the many ways that Google has been tracking its users, from using its Chrome browser to scan their computer files (might this make you think twice about using Chrome?); to scraping data from their Fitbits, to placing microphones into the Nest thermostats. This is scary stuff!
For the first time in history, a company that controlled so much of US telecommunications infrastructure was refusing to cooperate with government monitoring of such channels. This was a precedent that stretched back to Western Union’s cooperation with the “Black Chamber”, giving intelligence officials access to telegraph cables. While Microsoft was supportive of the NSA, giving pre-encryption access, Google engineers were furious to learn that the NSA had hacked into Google’s internet infrastructure.
Google not only refused to give the NSA access, but a group of senior engineers known as the “Group of Nine” even refused to adapt Google’s cloud infrastructure for basic use by the DoD. These facts are in stark contrast to Googles involvement in US politics and its influence over the US government.
After helping the Obama campaign create a “complex model of the electorate” during the 2012 election, Google’s Eric Schmidt went on to fund no less than three startups aimed at using consumer and voter data to influence elections, all of which were run by former Obama staffers. This included Groundwork, which was described as “Salesforce.com for politics”. Groundwork’s only “political” client was the Clinton campaign, and the company included former employees from Google. Clinton attended an event hosted by Google just days after Groundwork was incorporated.
So, this is just the beginning. I urge all my readers here to click on the original article in the first paragraph above, and read all the sordid details of how Google is actually preparing to rule the world. Today, I have minimized my use of any Google product. I closed my Gmail account two years ago, and I use DuckDuckGo as my only search engine, both on my iMac and my iPhone. I don’t use Google maps or Street View, or the Chrome browser; I don’t have a Fitbit, or a Nest thermometer. I have never used Facebook or Twitter, and that decision is continually confirmed as the correct one.
Disclosure: I have a very small position in Palantir Technologies, because I think it is a great company, which allows its customers to better use and organize the data they already have in all their systems. It helps that Peter Thiel is Chairman of their board of directors. The owners of the company support Liberty, and do not engage in the kind of underhanded conduct that has allowed Google and Facebook to become so powerful.
I would like to thank “Vincent Ventures”, the author of the Seeking Alpha article very much, for his excellent explanation of what has been going on for years, virtually invisible to the public which has been using the Internet for so many years, and not seeing all the dangers building up. Let the User Beware!