We knew Google wouldn’t be pleased by that smiley face some NSA cyberspook drew on a graphic showing how the agency planned to infiltrate its data centers.
On cue, executive chairman Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal this weekend that the spying program unmasked last week in the Washington Post is “outrageous” and potentially illegal if the allegations are accurate. The full, somewhat grammatically challenged quote:
It’s really outrageous that the National Security Agency was looking between the Google data centers, if that’s true. The steps that the organization was willing to do without good judgment to pursue its mission and potentially violate people’s privacy, it’s not OK. The Snowden revelations have assisted us in understanding that it’s perfectly possible that there are more revelations to come.
The scale of NSA’s collection of Americans’ cellphone records amounts to “bad public policy,” Schmidt added. “There clearly are cases where evil people exist, but you don’t have to violate the privacy of every single citizen of America to find them.”
Schmidt has a point here, but it’s undermined by his timing. It’s possible I missed something, but I don’t recall Schmidt speaking out so vehemently against NSA overreach before the Post reported that Google was among its covert targets. Yes, Google joined other big tech companies in politely lobbying for greater transparency. But it wasn’t until things got personal that Schmidt went to the press and started throwing around words like “outrageous,” “illegal,” and “bad public policy.”
It’s understandable that Schmidt and Google would feel betrayed here. They agreed to hand over limited amounts of user data to the NSA, yet if the allegations are true, the NSA nevertheless secretly grabbed far more behind Google’s back.
At the same time, this serves as a reminder of the essential subjectivity of Google’s definition of “evil.” Schmidt likes to present himself as an objective arbiter of what’s right and wrong when it comes to people’s online privacy. Yet he tends to see Google’s own actions through a decidedly more charitable lens than the one through which he views the actions of Google’s rivals—or, it seems, of government agencies that double-cross Google.
Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State, and Eric Schmidt is chair of the New America Foundation's board.