Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of that origin story. Some of the research that led to Google’s ambitious creation was funded and coordinated by a research group established by the intelligence community to find ways to track individuals and groups online.
The intelligence community hoped that the nation’s leading computer scientists could take non-classified information and user data, combine it with what would become known as the internet, and begin to create for-profit, commercial enterprises to suit the needs of both the intelligence community and the public. They hoped to direct the supercomputing revolution from the start in order to make sense of what millions of human beings did inside this digital information network. That collaboration has made a comprehensive public-private mass surveillance state possible today.
.. It is a somewhat different creation story than the one the public has heard, and explains what Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to build, and why.
.. The intelligence community wanted to shape Silicon Valley’s supercomputing efforts at their inception so they would be useful for both military and homeland security purposes. Could this supercomputing network, which would become capable of storing terabytes of information, make intelligent sense of the digital trail that human beings leave behind?
.. the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) had come to realize that their future was likely to be profoundly shaped outside the government. It was at a time when military and intelligence budgets within the Clinton administration were in jeopardy, and the private sector had vast resources at their disposal. If the intelligence community wanted to conduct mass surveillance for national security purposes, it would require cooperation between the government and the emerging supercomputing companies.
.. To do this, they began reaching out to the scientists at American universities
.. There was already a long history of collaboration between America’s best scientists and the intelligence community, from the creation of the atomic bomb and satellite technology to efforts to put a man on the moon.
.. Silicon Valley was no different. By the mid 1990s, the intelligence community was seeding funding to the most promising supercomputing efforts across academia, guiding the creation of efforts to make massive amounts of information useful for both the private sector as well as the intelligence community.
They funded these computer scientists through an unclassified, highly compartmentalized program that was managed for the CIA and the NSA by large military and intelligence contractors. It was called the Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS) project.
.. MDDS was introduced to several dozen leading computer scientists at Stanford, CalTech, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and others in a white paper that described what the CIA, NSA, DARPA, and other agencies hoped to achieve.
.. the program’s stated aim was to provide more than a dozen grants of several million dollars each to advance this research concept. The grants were to be directed largely through the NSF so that the most promising, successful efforts could be captured as intellectual property and form the basis of companies attracting investments from Silicon Valley.
.. Today, the NSF provides nearly 90% of all federal funding for university-based computer-science research.
.. The research arms of the CIA and NSA hoped that the best computer-science minds in academia could identify what they called “birds of a feather:” Just as geese fly together in large V shapes, or flocks of sparrows make sudden movements together in harmony, they predicted that like-minded groups of humans would move together online.
.. Their research aim was to track digital fingerprints inside the rapidly expanding global information network, which was then known as the World Wide Web. Could an entire world of digital information be organized so that the requests humans made inside such a network be tracked and sorted? Could their queries be linked and ranked in order of importance? Could “birds of a feather” be identified inside this sea of information so that communities and groups could be tracked in an organized way?
.. The primary objective of this grant was “query optimization of very complex queries that are described using the ‘query flocks’ approach.” A second grant—the DARPA-NSF grant most closely associated with Google’s origin—was part of a coordinated effort to build a massive digital library using the internet as its backbone.
.. Human beings and like-minded groups who might pose a threat to national security can be uniquely identified online before they do harm. This explains why the intelligence community found Brin’s and Page’s research efforts so appealing
.. The two intelligence-community managers charged with leading the program met regularly with Brin as his research progressed, and he was an author on several other research papers that resulted from this MDDS grant before he and Page left to form Google.
The grants allowed Brin and Page to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web-page ranking and tracking user queries. Brin didn’t work for the intelligence community—or for anyone else. Google had not yet been incorporated. He was just a Stanford researcher taking advantage of the grant provided by the NSA and CIA through the unclassified MDDS program.
.. The MDDS research effort has never been part of Google’s origin story, even though the principal investigator for the MDDS grant specifically named Google as directly resulting from their research: “Its core technology, which allows it to find pages far more accurately than other search engines, was partially supported by this grant,” he wrote. In a published research paper that includes some of Brin’s pivotal work, the authors also reference the NSF grant that was created by the MDDS program.
NSF likewise only references the digital libraries grant, not the MDDS grant as well, in its own history of Google’s origin.
.. But the grant from the intelligence community’s MDDS program—specifically designed for the breakthrough that Google was built upon—has faded into obscurity.
.. Brin’s breakthrough research on page ranking by tracking user queries and linking them to the many searches conducted—essentially identifying “birds of a feather”—was largely the aim of the intelligence community’s MDDS program. And Google succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
.. most people still don’t understand the degree to which the intelligence community relies on the world’s biggest science and tech companies for its counter-terrorism and national-security work.
.. in the most recent reporting period between 2016 and 2017, local, state and federal government authorities seeking information related to national security, counter-terrorism or criminal concerns issued more than 260,000 subpoenas, court orders, warrants, and other legal requests to Verizon, more than 250,000 such requests to AT&T, and nearly 24,000 subpoenas, search warrants, or court orders to Google.
.. In this way, the collaboration between the intelligence community and big, commercial science and tech companies has been wildly successful. When national security agencies need to identify and track people and groups, they know where to turn – and do so frequently. That was the goal in the beginning. It has succeeded perhaps more than anyone could have imagined at the time.