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Instead of following the world’s rants against President Donald Trump and his campaign’s use of Big Data, let’s look at his predecessor’s relationship with Google.

On April 22, 2016, The Intercept published ‘Google’s Remarkably Close Relationship With the Obama White House, in Two Charts’. David Dayen’s article is an eye-opener. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

Dayen pointed out the unusually close relationship between Obama’s White House and the Silicon Valley giant which benefited both parties:

Over the past seven years, Google has created a remarkable partnership with the Obama White House, providing expertise, services, advice, and personnel for vital government projects.

Precisely how much influence this buys Google isn’t always clear. But consider that over in the European Union, Google is now facing two major antitrust charges for abusing its dominance in mobile operating systems and search. By contrast, in the U.S., a strong case to sanction Google was quashed by a presidentially appointed commission.

There was no transparency about this relationship:

It’s a relationship that bears watching. “Americans know surprisingly little about what Google wants and gets from our government,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog organization. Seeking to change that, Weismann’s group is spearheading a data transparency project about Google’s interactions in Washington.

The Intercept and the Campaign for Accountability teamed up to find out how many times Google executives visited the White House and how this relationship worked.

The charts are at the bottom of the article. There was a lot of Google footfall during Obama’s two terms in office. The visitor data are from 2009 to 2015 and show:

White House meetings involving employees from Google, Eric Schmidt’s investment vehicle Tomorrow Ventures, and Civis Analytics, a company whose sole investor is Schmidt.

Between January 2009 and October 2015, Google staffers gathered at the White House on 427 separate occasions. All told, 182 White House employees and 169 Google employees attended the meetings, with participation from almost every domestic policy and national security player in the West Wing.

The frequency of the meetings has increased practically every year, from 32 in 2009 to 97 in 2014. In the first 10 months of 2015, which is as far as the study goes, there were 85 Google meetings.

The most frequent visitor is Johanna Shelton, one of Google’s top lobbyists in Washington — officially its director of public policy. Shelton attended meetings at the White House on 94 different occasions.

The article points out that Shelton was actually there on 128 different occasions. The discrepancy is accounted for as the visits excluded from the graph are social occasions, such as state dinners (!) and tours.

Judging from the people who went and the White House officials with whom they met:

Google’s presence as an economic force and a communications tool gives the company an interest in virtually every aspect of public policy.

Google employees met with everyone who had influence:

And they met with the president of the United States 21 separate times — five times in the first term and 16 times in the first two-plus years of the second term. Even Jill Biden and Michelle Obama have taken meetings with Google employees.

The Intercept says that the reasons for so many visits were for lobbying purposes and consulting projects.

The article says that Google did not get involved with the White House or Washington until Obama took office. The tech giant became a huge player:

It spent $16.7 million in lobbying in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and has been at or near the top of public companies in lobbying expenses since 2012.

But direct expenditures on lobbying represent only one part of the larger influence-peddling game. Google’s lobbying strategy also includes throwing lavish D.C. parties; making grants to trade groups, advocacy organizations, and think tanks; offering free services and training to campaigns, congressional offices, and journalists; and using academics as validators for the company’s public policy positionsEric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was an enthusiastic supporter of both of Obama’s presidential campaigns and has been a major Democratic donor.

I’m looking forward to finding out the real reason Eric Schmidt resigned a few months ago. But I digress.

The article says that the White House received consulting from Google gurus:

In just the past few years, Google has provided diplomatic assistance to the administration through expanding internet access in Cuba; collaborated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring Google Fiber into public housing; used Google resources to monitor droughts in real time; and even captured 360-degree views of White House interiors …

White House officials have publicly asked Silicon Valley for aid in stopping terrorists from recruiting via social media, securing the internet of thingsthwarting cyberattacksmodernizing the Defense Department, and generally updating all their technology. We can reasonably expect yet more things are being asked for behind closed doors.

I shudder to think what. Thank goodness Trump won.

Google was also an elaborate IT fixer for the Obama administration, available on demand. The article discusses the difficulties with the 2013 HealthCare.gov site:

Within weeks of the site going live, Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, his top deputy Nicole Wong (a former Google deputy general counsel), and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough held meetings with Google personnel.

In Time magazine, Steven Brill detailed one of those meetings, between Park and Gabriel Burt, the chief technology officer at Eric Schmidt’s Civis Analytics. Civis was already working on Obamacare as a vendor for Enroll America, a nonprofit tasked with getting people subscribed on the insurance exchanges. Civis used reams of data to target communities with high levels of uninsured Americans so Enroll America could contact them. But now the site where they were supposed to sign up wasn’t working. So the White House turned to Civis for help with that as well.

Eventually, Mikey Dickerson, a site-reliability engineer with Google who previously worked on the Obama campaign, got hired to fix the site. Burt and Dickerson worked together to “form a rescue squad” for HealthCare.gov, according to Time. And most of the recruits came from Google. Later, Dickerson led the U.S. Digital Service, a new agency whose mission was to fix other technology problems in the federal government. Ex-Google staffers were prevalent there as well. Dickerson attended nine White House meetings with Google personnel while working for the government between 2013 and 2014.

Meetings between Google and the White House, viewed in this context, sometimes function like calls to the IT Help Desk. Only instead of working for the same company, the government is supposed to be regulating Google as a private business, not continually asking it for favors.

Anne Weismann, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, said she hopes this information:

will help the public learn more about the company’s influence on our government, our policies, and our lives.

On April 23, 2016, the Daily Mail summarised The Intercept article and reported Google’s response to it:

Of course we’ve had many meetings at the White House over the years.

Google’s response sounded most altruistic in describing the various projects that they discussed with the Obama team, among them STEM education.

One thing is for certain. Google’s censorship campaign is alive and well, including on YouTube. Google also generates social media bots, then falsely accuses conservatives of that.

A litany of transgressions can be raised against the company. For these reasons, I hope people rethink their Google use.

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My past two posts have discussed Big Data:

A Google Anon explains social media bots (March 19, 2018)

The alarming world of Big Data (March 20)

Today’s post looks at Big Data’s role in crime solving. Police in Raleigh, North Carolina, sometimes use Google data to investigate crimes. They are not the only law enforcement agency to do so. Austin, Texas police were able to obtain information from Google in order to trap the 24-year-old man who was sending incendiary devices around the city.

On March 15, 2018, Raleigh’s WRAL.com posted an article about the subject. Google has received an increase in law enforcement requests for the Silicon Valley giant’s data (emphases mine):

Google’s most recent transparency report shows that there were about 5,200 search warrants requesting user information in the U.S. in the first half of 2017, an all-time high. User information requested through subpoenas and other court orders accounted for more than twice that number. The company produced at least some data in response to requests in the first of half of 2017 about 81 percent of the time.

The article says that it is unclear whether Google data actually helped Raleigh police in four criminal cases:

Google declined to say whether it released data in any of the Raleigh cases, and it’s unclear from the search warrants exactly what information was seized or whether it’s been effective in moving the investigations forward.

Of the four cases, only one has resulted in an arrest.

Tyron D. Cooper was charged Oct. 13 with the murder of [Nwabu] Efobi, the taxi driver gunned down in east Raleigh. But the related search warrant shows data wasn’t received from Google until months later.

Cooper’s attorney, Christian Dysart, declined to comment on the case.

Two issues are at play here. The first is the amount of data people inadvertently give Google via their accounts and GPS. The second surrounds the manner in which the data are requested.

On the first issue, Google makes money by selling location data, which are:

immensely valuable to Google, one of the reasons the company collects and stores the information on users of both its Android operating system and, in some cases, mobile apps such as Gmail.

Most people with Google accounts probably do not realise how much they are telling the company — and others — about themselves:

From an average smartphone user’s perspective, it’s a little surprising once you start to learn the full scope of information about our locations and whereabouts and activities that companies like Google hold,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

People are mistaken if they think that turning their devices off turns off the tracking:

Users can switch location tracking off to prevent the device from pinging GPS satellites. But if it’s on a cellular network or connected to Wi-Fi, the device is still transmitting its coordinates to third parties, even if they’re far less accurate than GPS.

In the past, at least, turning off that technology has been no guarantee of privacy.

Business and technology news site Quartz discovered late last year that Google continued to track devices even when all GPS, Wi-Fi and cell networks were supposedly disabled. The tech giant says it has updated its software to stop the practice.

For its part, law enforcement makes frequent use of cellular network data to build cases.

That’s not so bad, we think. After all, they’re only catching criminals, not ordinary people. However, last year in Raleigh, police created a digital cordon around certain serious crime scenes:

On a satellite image, they drew shapes around the crime scenes, marking the coordinates on the map. Then they convinced a Wake County judge they had enough probable cause to order Google to hand over account identifiers on every single cell phone that crossed the digital cordon during certain times.

In at least four investigations last year – cases of murder, sexual battery and even possible arson at the massive downtown fire in March 2017 – Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects, but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime, according to a WRAL News review of court records. These warrants often prevent the technology giant for months from disclosing information about the searches not just to potential suspects, but to any users swept up in the search.

These can be quite large areas:

The demands Raleigh police issued for Google data described a 17-acre area that included both homes and businesses. In the Efobi homicide case, the cordon included dozens of units in the Washington Terrace complex near St. Augustine’s University.

The account IDs aren’t limited to electronics running Android. The warrant includes any device running location-enabled Google apps, according to Raleigh Police Department spokeswoman Laura Hourigan.

“At the end of the day, this tactic unavoidably risks getting information about totally innocent people,” Wessler said. “Location information is really revealing and private about people’s habits and activities and what they’re doing.”

This appears to be a legal method, as it concerns public safety:

Hourigan said Raleigh police investigators use these search warrants on a case-by-case basis and consider Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

“This technique is used in extraordinary circumstances because the department is aware of the privacy issues that the tactic raises,” she said in an email March 9.

According to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, police are following best practice by:

targeting narrow areas and specific time windows. She points out that data investigators receive from Google contain only anonymized account numbers without any content included.

We’re not getting text messages or emails or phone calls without having to go through a different process and having additional information that might lead us to a specific individual,” Freeman said.

On the other hand:

After five years as a Wake County prosecutor, Raleigh defense attorney Steven Saad said he’s familiar with police demands for Google account data or cell tower records on a named suspect. But these area-based search warrants were new to him.

This is almost the opposite technique, where they get a search warrant in the hopes of finding somebody later to follow or investigate,” Saad said. “It’s really hard to say that complies with most of the search warrant or probable cause rules that we’ve got around the country.”

And:

[Jonathan] Jones, the Elon professor and former Durham prosecutor, expressed similar concerns after reviewing the warrants. In particular, the fire and sexual battery cases didn’t present evidence that the arsonist or the attacker had a cell phone, he said.

“In those cases, the evidence provided to establish probable cause seems very thin to me,” Jones said. “These amount to fishing expeditions that could potentially snare anyone in the vicinity with a cell phone, whether they were involved in the crime or not.”

In conclusion, perhaps we need to be more aware of the information we’re giving out every day and how it could be used:

Most modern phones, tablets and laptops have built-in location tracking that pings some combination of GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile networks to determine the device’s position.

This is no doubt only the tip of the Big Data iceberg. We would probably be shocked if we knew the full story.

In July 2017, a then-Google employee, James Damore, wrote a ten-page essay, including footnotes, about Google’s approach to diversity.

While other sites posted abridged versions, you can read ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ in full here and here: recommended reading for all.

Consider that things like this are happening — or could so easily happen — i.e. blacklists, suggested in this supposed joke:

Summary

James Damore’s perspective is one of promoting diversity but doing it in a realistic, individualised way that looks at people’s strengths and perceived weaknesses — and making good use of both. He wrote that his commentary pertained only to the Mountain View, California location where he works.

Two excerpts follow. The first is the introduction:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

Despite what the public response seems to have been, I’ve gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up these very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of being fired. This needs to change.

The second is this brief part from his detailed conclusion:

I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology. I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

Heavy summarised his detailed conclusion as follows:

He suggested Google do the following: De-moralize diversity; stop alienating conservatives; confront its biases; stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races; have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of its diversity programs; focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity; de-emphasize empathy; prioritize intention; be open about the science of human nature; and reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory for promo committees.

Reaction

This is a summary of the reaction by Damore’s colleagues:

On Saturday, August 5, Business Insider reported on the reaction from certain Google employees (tweets at the link):

Google employees are up in arms after a senior engineer at the company penned an anti-diversity manifesto that has spread through the company like wildfire.

At that time, no one knew the author’s identity because only excerpts were available. Business Insider contacted Google for comment:

A Google spokesperson referred Business Insider to internal memos posted by Google’s head of diverisity, Danielle Brown, as well as to an internal post by Ari Balogh, a Google VP of engineering.

Business Insider found out about the document from Vice‘s Motherboard, whose team saw it at Gizmodo.

Dilbert’s Scott Adams tweeted the link to the Business Insider article:

On Monday, August 7, Google fired Damore. Bloomberg reports:

James Damore, the Google engineer who wrote the note, confirmed his dismissal in an email, saying that he had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” He said he’s “currently exploring all possible legal remedies” …

Earlier on Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a note to employees that said portions of the memo “violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” But he didn’t say if the company was taking action against the employee. A Google representative, asked about the dismissal, referred to Pichai’s memo.

Damore’s 10-page memorandum accused Google of silencing conservative political opinions and argued that biological differences play a role in the shortage of women in tech and leadership positions. It circulated widely inside the company and became public over the weekend, causing a furor that amplified the pressure on Google executives to take a more definitive stand.

After the controversy swelled, Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president for diversity, integrity and governance, sent a statement to staff condemning Damore’s views and reaffirmed the company’s stance on diversity. In internal discussion boards, multiple employees said they supported firing the author, and some said they would not choose to work with him, according to postings viewed by Bloomberg News.

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” Brown said in the statement. “We’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul.”

It looks as if Google might have been trying to protect themselves:

The memo and surrounding debate comes as Google fends off a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Labor alleging the company systemically discriminates against women. Google has denied the charges, arguing that it doesn’t have a gender gap in pay, but has declined to share full salary information with the government. According to the company’s most recent demographic report, 69 percent of its workforce and 80 percent of its technical staff are male.

However, Bloomberg stated that the subject of diverse opinions at Google arose during their shareholder meeting in June (emphases mine):

A shareholder asked executives whether conservatives would feel welcome at the company. Executives disagreed with the idea that anyone wouldn’t.

“The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “You’ll also find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.”

Yes, and that is the problem. I have read anecdotally from conservative Silicon Valley employees that they keep their heads down and get on with the work. They said they would not dare to discuss social issues or politics and do their best to fit in with the prevailing culture because they like their work.

Heavy says that Damore told a New York Times reporter:

he will likely take legal action against Google. He said he believes the company acted illegally by firing him.

“I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does,” Damore told the New York Times. He said he wrote the memo to start an “honest discussion” about what he believes to be Google’s intolerance for ideas that don’t fit into its left-leaning biases, according to the Times.

Damore told the Times he submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board before he was fired, claiming Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints.” He said it is “illegal to retaliate” against a complaint made to the NLRB.

An account to help with his legal fees is now open on WeSearchr.com.

Twitter lit up.

Alternative media’s Mike Cernovich had this pertinent comment:

A young woman took exception to Google employees who were happy about Damore’s dismissal:

A professor of evolutionary psychology defended Damore:

Who is James Damore?

Heavy tells us that Damore is originally from Illinois.

He graduated from the prestigious — and rigorous — Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in 2007.

He was also a chess champion in his youth:

As a child, Damore was a chess champion, earning the FIDE Master title, putting him in the >99th percentile, according to his CV. He won regional tournaments in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, and finished second in the Nation Youth Action 2003 Chess Tournament.

He graduated with high honours from the University of Illinois:

he graduated in 2010 in the top 3 percent of his class with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, according to his CV. He graduated as a James Scholar and was given the Bronze Tablet, the highest awards given to graduates, he said.

He then enrolled in a graduate programme at Harvard University:

Damore also pursued his Ph.D. in systems biology from Harvard University in from 2011 to 2013, according to his Linkedin profile. He is listed in the alumni section of the Harvard Systems Biology Ph.D. program, but it is not clear if he completed the degree.

He was employed as a researcher at Harvard, MIT and Princeton:

He published two research papers while working at Jeff Gore’s biophysics laboratory at MIT in 2011 and 2012: “Understanding microbial cooperation” and “A slowly evolving host moves first in symbiotic interactions.”

He says that he has “Senior or graduate level knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, game theory, and computer programming.”

He was delighted to be offered a job at Google in December 2013:

“Flying home tonight and starting at Google in two weeks, so excited,” he wrote on Facebook. Damore worked on infrastructure for Google’s search product, according to the New York Times.

Heavy delved into Damore’s Facebook musings and posted a few of them. Not surprisingly, this genius is an introvert, although not without friends. He also tries to make life as efficient a process as possible. He does not like to waste time. He is also an artist and posts his charcoal drawings on Facebook.

Instant popularity and job offers

James Damore’s Google memo has made him a national hero.

He has attracted the attention of many online, including Julian Assange:

Gab — similar to Twitter but less censorious — also wants to interview Damore:

It looks as if James Damore has an even brighter future ahead of him. I wish him all the best and applaud him for his guts.

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