Google’s true origin partly lies in CIA and NSA research grants for mass surveillance — Quartz
Le titre est un peu « clickbait », mais les infos sont intéressantes, quoique parfois elliptiques.
C’est écrit par : Jeff Nesbit, Former director of legislative and public affairs, National Science Foundation
Quelqu’un qui doit savoir de quoi il cause.
In the mid 1990s, the intelligence community in America began to realize that they had an opportunity. The supercomputing community was just beginning to migrate from university settings into the private sector, led by investments from a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley.
The intelligence community wanted to shape Silicon Valley’s efforts at their inception so they would be useful for homeland security purposes. A digital revolution was underway: one that would transform the world of data gathering and how we make sense of massive amounts of information. 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?
Intelligence-gathering may have been their world, but 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.
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.
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 research would largely be funded and managed by unclassified science agencies like NSF, which would allow the architecture to be scaled up in the private sector if it managed to achieve what the intelligence community hoped for.
“Not only are activities becoming more complex, but changing demands require that the IC [Intelligence Community] process different types as well as larger volumes of data,” the intelligence community said in its 1993 MDDS white paper. “Consequently, the IC is taking a proactive role in stimulating research in the efficient management of massive databases and ensuring that IC requirements can be incorporated or adapted into commercial products. Because the challenges are not unique to any one agency, the Community Management Staff (CMS) has commissioned a Massive Digital Data Systems [MDDS] Working Group to address the needs and to identify and evaluate possible solutions.”
In 1995, one of the first and most promising MDDS grants went to a computer-science research team at Stanford University with a decade-long history of working with NSF and DARPA grants. 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. Both grants funded research by two graduate students who were making rapid advances in web-page ranking, as well as tracking (and making sense of) user queries: future Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
The research by Brin and Page under these grants became the heart of Google: people using search functions to find precisely what they wanted inside a very large data set. The intelligence community, however, saw a slightly different benefit in their research: Could the network be organized so efficiently that individual users could be uniquely identified and tracked?
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.
Left out of Google’s story
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.
Instead, every Google creation story only mentions just one federal grant: the NSF/DARPA “digital libraries” grant, which was designed to allow Stanford researchers to search the entire World Wide Web stored on the university’s servers at the time. “The development of the Google algorithms was carried on a variety of computers, mainly provided by the NSF-DARPA-NASA-funded Digital Library project at Stanford,” Stanford’s Infolab says of its origin, for example. NSF likewise only references the digital libraries grant, not the MDDS grant as well, in its own history of Google’s origin. In the famous research paper, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” which describes the creation of Google, Brin and Page thanked the NSF and DARPA for its digital library grant to Stanford. But the grant from the intelligence community’s MDDS program—specifically designed for the breakthrough that Google was built upon—has faded into obscurity.
Google has said in the past that it was not funded or created by the CIA. For instance, when stories circulated in 2006 that Google had received funding from the intelligence community for years to assist in counter-terrorism efforts, the company told Wired magazine founder John Battelle, “The statements related to Google are completely untrue.”
Did the CIA directly fund the work of Brin and Page, and therefore create Google? No. But were Brin and Page researching precisely what the NSA, the CIA, and the intelligence community hoped for, assisted by their grants? Absolutely.
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.