Which side — privacy or surveillance — is Google chairman on?

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Before defending the U.S. government’s surveillance apparatus — as he did last week — Eric Schmidt wasn’t so blasé about government snooping.

In an overlooked chapter of his recently released book The New Digital Age, Google’s executive chairman described the battle for Internet privacy as a “long, important struggle” and depicted the emergence of Big Data surveillance tactics as a threat to a free society.

“Governments operating surveillance platforms will surely violate restrictions placed on them (by legislation or legal ruling) eventually,” he wrote in a chapter on the future of terrorism. “The potential for misuse of this power is terrifyingly high, to say nothing of the dangers introduced by human error, data-driven false positives and simple curiosity.”

Sounds like a familiar problem, right?

Little did Schmidt know that two months after his book’s release, an intelligence contractor named Edward Snowden would carry out the biggest leak in the history of the National Security Agency, exposing its surveillance program PRISM and the cooperation of top technology firms including Google.

Now, Schmidt maintains that the media got PRISM wrong in terms of its scale and structural makeup. “Google does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data,” he tweeted last week. And other journalists have also disputed reports by the Guardian and The Washington Post that PRISM offers the NSA “direct access” to the servers of Internet companies.

But while a definitive anatomy of PRISM remains elusive, what we can gather from the contradictory reporting is that — at a minimum — Google closely cooperates with the NSA within legal boundaries to provide the private communications of users to the government and — at a maximum — does this with little resistance and on a scale many orders of magnitude larger than anyone previously understood.

In either case, the fact that Schmidt knew about how much information the government was secretly collecting about individuals makes his book seem somewhat less prophetic and somewhat more grounded in the present day. But clearly, Big Data surveillance worries him.

“Fighting for privacy is going to be a long, important struggle. We may have won some early battles, but the war is far from over,” he wrote, before describing something that sounds a lot like PRISM. “Perhaps a fully integrated information system, with all manner of data inputs, software that can interpret and predict behavior, and humans at the controls, is simply too powerful for anyone to handle responsibly.”

Going further, he wrote ominously about how such a surveillance apparatus could grow beyond a free society’s control. “Once built, such a system will never be dismantled,” he said. “Even if a dire security situation were to improve, what government would willingly give up such a powerful law-enforcement tool? And the next government in charge might not exhibit the same caution or responsibility with its information as the preceding one.”

Fortunately, Big Brother tyranny is probable but not inevitable, according to Schmidt. “The only remedies for potential digital tyranny are to strengthen legal institutions and to encourage civil society to remain active and wise to potential abuses of this power.” But that raises a question: Is Schmidt now on the wrong side of ensuring that civil society is “wise to potential abuses of this power”?

John Hudson is a national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

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