The Reasoned Review

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Google and the Surveillance State

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So everyone is talking about Google’s latest threats to China. If you somehow haven’t already heard, Google is suddenly pissed at Chinese policy for some reason and is now threatening to leave. I think the Chinese government hacked some e-mails or something? Anyway, Google just isn’t going to take it anymore.

This news is in its speculative stage (just a little baby!) but already it’s grown into a behemoth, dominating the business sections of The Times, The Journal, pretty much every other “serious” newspaper, and of course, all the myriad blogs. What makes this development so puzzling, and what few have bothered to mention, is that until now Google.cn has cooperated fully with China’s censorship program, removing results to searches containing words such as “Tiananmen square massacre”, “Tibet”, “democracy”, “protest”, and so forth. In the past, they have received copious criticism for this blatant disregard for their (supposed) motto of “free information”.

In its blog, Google briefly mentions that it will no longer cooperate with the Chinese censorship program, and then launches into a harangue regarding hacked e-mails and “attacks” on Google’s infrastructure:

We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

As part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.

Okay. I understand why Google might want to backpedal on its cooperation with China’s censorship programs.  It was never a good idea to begin with, ran completely opposed to Google’s stated aims, and sparked a lot of really bad publicity. But why not say as much? Why the feigned surprise and outrage over China’s “hacking” of Google e-mail accounts? Obviously the Chinese Government has some kind of beef with human-rights activists (and Google should know: they voluntarily censored the words “human rights” in their Chinese searches for four years) – was Google really that surprised that the Chinese government decided to take a peek into some dissident G-mail accounts?

And this further begs the question – will Google apply this standard to all countries, or just China? As they well know, the UK also has a warrantless surveillance program, with specific clauses for e-mail. In the UK, the exact practices which so offended Google in China (accessing accounts via “phishing scams or malware”) are legal and apparently occur as I write.

The Times of London reports in an article entitled “Police set to step-up hacking of home PCs” that the UK police are also hacking e-mails:

Police might also send an e-mail to a suspect’s computer. The message would include an attachment that contained a virus or “malware”. If the attachment was opened, the remote search facility would be covertly activated. Alternatively, police could park outside a suspect’s home and hack into his or her hard drive using the wireless network.

Oh… Yeah, that’s pretty much what China is doing. I wonder if Google will set up a huge press conference to announce it’s pulling out of Britain now.

And remember, the US still has warrantless wiretapping on its books, which means that in addition to e-mail, the US government can listen in on phone calls and regular conversations without approval from a judge. Obviously this means the US government can also hack e-mails (even Google e-mails) at its whim. Will Google write a new blog post to decry these “attacks and surveillance”, prompting them to “review the feasibility of operations in the US”? Somehow I doubt it.

So hooray, I guess, for Google finally standing up to the Chinese police state. One only wishes it would do the same for other surveillance states.

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