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Leaked emails cast a shadow on Google’s relationship with the NSA

Are you "feeling lucky" today?


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Posted on May 8, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 8:39 am CDT


“Hi Keith,” an email from Google co-founder Sergey Brin begins. 

“General Keith…so great to see you!” reads an email from Google chairman Eric Schmidt to “General Keith,” the now former NSA director Keith Alexander.

These exchanges, published Tuesday by Al-Jazeera, further paint a picture of casual coziness with the NSA that is at odds with Google’s public image as a company exasperated by all the government’s recent attempts to pilfer user data and undermine Internet security. 

After all, back in October, a member of Google’s security team publicly lashed out at the NSA in response to the Washington Post story about Yahoo! and Google data center links being infiltrated by the surveillance agency. Google engineer, Brandon Downey, posted on his Google+ page:

Fuck these guys. 

I’ve spent the last ten years of my life trying to keep Google’s users safe and secure from the many diverse threats Google faces.

I’ve seen armies of machines DOS-ing Google. I’ve seen worms DOS’ing Google to find vulnerabilities in other people’s software. I’ve seen criminal gangs figure out malware. I’ve seen spyware masquerading as toolbars so thick it breaks computers because it interferes with the other spyware.

I’ve even seen oppressive governments use state sponsored hacking to target dissidents.

But even though we suspected this was happening, it still makes me terribly sad. It makes me sad because I believe in America.

At the time, this resonated with me, and as a long-time Google user and supporter (I even recently switched to my first Android phone), I felt that Google was essentially a “victim” of government surveillance—not a willing party.

Now, let’s be clear about something: some casual emails back and forth from 2012, well before the Edward Snowden revelations even surfaced, does not mean that Google is somehow conspiring with the NSA to digitally enslave us all.

However, it is concerning. And if those Edward Snowden slides have shown us anything, it’s that some fairly evil surveillance implementations (remember the SSL smiley face?) can look quite mundane to the observer: just some PowerPoint slides, just some casual emails, what’s the big deal?

I think this confirms, in the most concrete way yet, that the NSA is more than some completely above the fray lurker with massive resources. It’s an active part of the tech community in the United States—to such an extent that the chairman of Google gets back to the NSA director’s emails. It’s a powerful shadow player performing all sorts of functions that seem to have nothing to do with slurping up “foreign intelligence.” 

Let’s remember that is the NSA’s mandate, not domestic surveillance and certainly not shepherding the tech industry behind the scenes. The court that oversees the NSA’s activities, the rubber stamp FISA court, gets its name from the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

Google executives on US soil aren’t foreign assets. They’re American businessmen, and when they are on a first name basis with the head of the world’s most powerful spy agency, people are right to be a bit vexed. 

And I don’t mean to disparage Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin or the company’s current CEO, Larry Page. Google’s founders are some of the best entrepreneurs America has ever seen, and their company is unlocking innovation within nearly every aspect of our society, in a way that no company has done before. 

But to be buddy-buddy with the surveillance agencies that have essentially formed a parasitic relationship with the Internet itself, that goes against everything Google supposedly stands for. I don’t want to say “Don’t be evil,” because this isn’t about being good or evil. It’s about looking out for your users. 

And if you’re on a first name basis with “Keith,” whose agency is the single largest known threat to Google’s information security, then sorry, your priorities are misplaced…or were.

As I said, we have to remember these emails date from 2012, well before Edward Snowden’s revelations came to light. Their relationship with Alexander may have soured considerably since then. Or grown fonder. We don’t know–which is the point, isn’t it? 

Happy Googling. Are you “feeling lucky” today?

Photo via (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 8, 2014, 7:30 am CDT