By Kit Klarenberg – Oct 2, 2023
September 27th marked the 25th birthday of Google. In commemoration, the technology giant issued a statement, thanking its users for their “curiosity” over the past two-and-a-half decades.
CEO Sundar Pichai said it was “an enormous privilege to reach this milestone, and we haven’t done it alone.” He credited his company being “what it is today” due to its employees, partners, and “most importantly, all the people who use our products.”
In reality, Google is what it is today – indeed, exists in the first place – due to funding and sponsorship from the CIA and NSA. That history has not only gone untold by the mainstream media, it has been systematically suppressed by the company, its founders, and the spying agencies involved over the past 25 years.
In the early 1990s, the US intelligence community launched a daring initiative. In conjunction with leading universities and firms in California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley, spying agencies sought to perfect a means of tracking the activities of groups and individuals on the then-embryonic world wide web.
Simultaneously, a supercomputing revolution was rapidly pullulating, and the US surveillance state wasn’t prepared to sit idly by. The CIA and NSA among others wished to direct and influence the upheaval for their own ends, creating an online milieu facilitating their desire to collect and understand vast quantities of data on private citizens. In addition to laying the foundations of modern global surveillance, this collaboration helped launch a number of major companies of modern prominence. Among them, Google.
So it was in 1993, the US intelligence community launched Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS), a research and development program. The project was pitched to leading computer scientists at leading universities, including CalTech, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, in a whitepaper setting out the challenges the agencies faced, and what they hoped to achieve:
“Changing demands require the IC [Intelligence Community] process different types as well as larger volumes of data. Consequently, the IC is taking a proactive role in stimulating research in efficient management of massive databases and ensuring IC requirements can be incorporated or adapted into commercial products. The challenges are not unique to any one agency…Community Management Staff has commissioned a Massive Digital Data Systems Working Group to address the needs and to identify and evaluate possible solutions.”
To achieve these goals, the agencies, under the auspices the National Science Foundation (NSF), provided over a dozen grants worth several million each to teams at different universities. The goal was to identify and sort the ‘digital fingerprints’ of individuals and groups online, linking and ranking their queries in order of importance, deciphering any meaningful patterns that emerged from the data morass, and tracking their future digital trails.
If successful, any architecture grant recipients created in their universities would be passed to the private sector for scaling up. A vast number of tech companies of modern prominence got their ‘break’ in this manner. Ever since, the NSF has provided up to 90% of all federal funding for university-based computer-science research annually.
One MDDS grant was allocated to a computer-science research team at Stanford. Its primary objective was crafting techniques for query optimization, using an approach known as ‘query flocks’. This was a specific allusion to the syncopated movement of birds in flight. The CIA and NSA believed groups of humans would behave the same way online – and wished to identify anyone who failed to.
The Stanford team was already on the US intelligence community radar, having previously received a research grant from the NSF and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which aimed to build a voluminous, searchable digital library via the internet. Among their number were two graduate students who’d made huge, pioneering advances in the field of webpage ranking and user query tracking, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Research produced under both grants in time formed the very raison d’etre of the pair’s brainchild, Google – finding specific information from a vast data set. It was also exactly what the CIA and NSA hoped to create.
Throughout Google’s initial development, Brin regularly reported on the project’s progress to Dr. Rick Steinheiser and Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham. Neither were connected to Stanford. Steinheiser worked directly for the CIA\s internal Research and Development department, while Thuraisingham was an employee of US defense contractor MITRE Corp, leading research and development efforts for the NSA, CIA, US Air Force Research Laboratory and US Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. She has written:
“Google founder Sergey Brin was partly-funded by this program while a PhD student at Stanford. He together with his advisor Prof. Jeffrey D. Ullman and my colleague at MITRE, Dr. Chris Clifton, developed the Query Flocks System which produced solutions for mining large amounts of data stored in databases. I remember visiting Stanford with Dr. Rick Steinheiser and Brin would rush in on roller blades, give his presentation and rush out. In fact the last time we met in September 1998, Brin demonstrated to us his search engine which became Google soon after.”
Lying via Omission
The allegation that the CIA assisted in the creation of Google in some way or other is almost as old as the company itself. As are the company’s vehement denials of such a relationship. In 2006, it was widely reported Google had a long-standing relationship with US intelligence agencies, receiving funding from the community along the way. A company spokesperson said the claim was “completely untrue.”
Moreover, the company’s officially sanctioned history makes no reference to the MDDS grant, despite acknowledging the NSF/DARPA grant. Likewise, Stanford’s Infolab entry on Google’s origins omits MDDS entirely, merely stating the “development of the Google algorithms was carried on on a variety of Computers, mainly provided by the NSF-DARPA-NASA-funded Digital Library project at Stanford.”
For its part, the NSF’s own article ‘On the Origins of Google’ similarly refers merely to DARPA. Meanwhile, a research paper authored by Brin and Page, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, an oft-cited account of how the pair created Google, makes no mention of MDDS whatsoever.
Were it not for Thuraisingham’s testimony, little public record of the MDDS grant awarded to Brin and Page would exist. One supporting source is Professor Jeffrey D. Ullman’s naming of Google as a product of the project’s research in a 2000 report:
“Last year, we mentioned two startups that developed from research under this and predecesor grants, Junglee Corp., bought by Amazon.com in 1998, applied information-integration technology to the Web. Google is a search engine company whose growth has brought it to the first rank, and is growing faster than any of its competitors. Its core technology, which allows it to find pages far more accurately than other search engines, was partially supported by this grant.”
Another is a 1998 research paper, naming Brin and Page as authors. It lists some of their most significant work to date, and refers to Brin as “partially supported by the Community Management Staff’s Massive Digital Data Systems Program, NSF grant.”
The War on Terror was a veritable feeding frenzy for defense contractors, with the sector profiting to the collective tune of trillions. However, it wasn’t the only industry cashing in. Major household names in tech today, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, all reaped billions from selling their tech and services to the Empire’s perpetual war machine. For example, Google’s Maven program used artificial intelligence to make drone strikes deadlier.
By some calculations, 77% of all government contracts awarded to Google since its inception related to the War on Terror. That income played a pivotal role in transforming the company, and its sectoral peers, from small start-ups, literally operating from basements, into global behemoths. Many of these Google services deployed overseas have now been turned inward.
There is moreover a mephitic revolving door between Google and US government defense, security, and intelligence agencies. To name but one example, in 2010 State Department journeyman Jared Cohen founded Jigsaw, a Google unit exploring “threats to open societies.” An early project was counter-terrorism tools for social media platforms, which sought to dissuade Muslims from joining groups such as Daesh by targeting ads at individuals searching terms and keywords Google determined were of interest to potential terrorists.
While in Washington’s employ, Cohen was intimately implicated in numerous destabilization efforts overseas, and demonstrated. For example, during the June 2009 protests in Iran, he approached Twitter and asked the social network not to perform planned maintenance that would’ve temporarily closed the platform, to ensure protesters could continue tweeting. Such activities did not end when he joined Google. Three years later, he emailed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, indicating a role in the Western-fomented Syrian “revolution”:
“My team is planning to launch a tool on Sunday that will publicly track and map the defections in Syria and which parts of the government they are coming from…We believe this can have an important impact.”
It’s unsurprising then Google suspected Cohen was coordinating his insurrectionary conduct with the White House. Leaked emails show the company desperately struggled, and eventually succeeded, in preventing him from traveling to Gaza in February 2011. His employer considered him a “loose cannon,” heading to occupied Palestinian territory on a “specific mission of regime change.” Evidently, even the CIA and NSA’s secret offspring has boundaries.
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions.
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