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Google Enters the Drug Wars

July 17, 2012

I commented briefly yesterday on a new initiative spearheaded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to combat transnational illicit activity. In all honesty, it’s hard to take the thing seriously—the UN is organizing an awareness campaign that looks decidedly uninspired, which makes sense when you consider the agency’s miniscule budget. According to a press release, “The campaign, which is being rolled-out through online channels and international broadcasters, consists of 30 and 60-second Public Service Announcements in multiple languages, a set of posters, a series of fact sheets and various online banners that illustrate that despite being a global threat, the effects of transnational organized crime are felt locally. The campaign is also being promoted through various social media channels.”

What’s more, any excitement around the UNODC’s announcement was successfully dwarfed this afternoon by a more well-heeled outfit. Google grabbed attention today as it kicked off a two-day summit in Los Angeles on the topic of illicit markets and how best to combat them.  The get-together marks the first big push by the search engine king to establish itself as a leading actor in the hunt for solutions to the problem of criminal enterprise.

In addition to a rock star line up of academics and industry heavyweights, this week’s conference, as the Guardian notes, brings together an odd assortment of personalities. Among others attending the gathering will be “Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary general; Juan Pablo Escobar, son of the late Colombian drug lord; Alejandro Poire, Mexico’s interior minister; Okello Sam, a Ugandan former child soldier; Andy Weber, assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs at the US department of defense; and a group of North Korean defectors.”

While the conference looks impressive on the outside, it’s unclear what discussions are intended to achieve. Talking points issued by conference participants were long on generalities, short on substance. “We all know that bad guys use the Internet, but now we’re saying the Internet can also help stop these criminals, and help survivors and advocates find each other and work together,”  Pardis Mahdavi told USA Today. (Side note: you can read my interview with Pardis at Jadaliyya here.) The Council on Foreign Relations’ Stewart Patrick had this to say to the Associated Press: “It might sound like a different path for Google, but technology companies today have a lot of powerful tools for bringing transparency to these illicit networks, to fight back against corruption and empower those who are trying to combat transnational crime.”  And Rani Hong, a UN advisor and a formerly trafficked person, didn’t budge from the script either. Google is “a powerful medium and they have great tools to solve this problem,” she said.

Nor is it evident what the long-term effects of Google’s cringe-inducing “think/do tank” will have in the fight against transnational crime other than increasing its surveillance capabilities and developing its competitive advantage in technological innovation. An op-ed written by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in the Washington Post today hardly clarifies the matter.

Now, consider a network like the Internet, where sources send out their messages in little pieces — or, packets — each labeled with the address of their destination. Intermediate nodes forward the packets onward, and they are reassembled at the destination. Each link in the network may not have the full message. The transmitter and receiver don’t need to communicate directly or at the same time. They don’t need to know each other’s location. There’s no single point of failure, no rigid hierarchy.

In Juarez, we saw fearful human beings — sources — who need to get their information into the right hands. With our packet-switching mind-set, we realized that there may be a technological workaround to the fear: Sources don’t need to physically turn to corrupt authorities, distant journalists or diffuse nonprofits, and rely on their hope that the possible benefit is worth the risk of exposing themselves.

Technology can help intermediate this exchange, like servers passing packets on the Internet. Sources don’t need to pierce their anonymity. They don’t need to trust a single person or institution. Why can’t they simply throw encrypted packets into the network and let the tools move information to the right destinations?

Say what?

Not only that, it’s unclear how Google, to use their example, plans to convince Mexicans that they can safely practice the sort of crowdsourcing Schmidt and Cohen are offering up, no matter how secure in theory.  Jo Tuckman, in her excellent Mexico: Democracy Interrupted, illustrates the well-founded paranoia locals experience when it comes to using the internet to slap back at cartels.

In Autumn 2011, Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro’s decapitated body was dumped near a monument in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. Headphones had been placed on the severed head, and there was a message, signed by the Zetas, threatening social networking sites. Macias Castro had regularly posted information anonymously on a local crime-monitoring site. She also worked at a local paper, which did not even report her death.

Safe to say, decapitated heads are more persuasive than the safety guarantees of rich Americans in Silicon Valley. And technology is useless without people to take advantage of it.

Besides, faith in technology should be tempered with the understanding that hi-tech tools and capabilities are a double-edged sword, capable of being purchased by the highest bidders. Just as Google has the capacity to hire the best minds to develop new software tools to increase transparency, powerful criminal groups can hire their own army of geeks to outfox emerging crime-fighting technologies as they have for years. Important, too, is the fact that Mexican mafias have the capital wherewithal to fight two wars simultaneously—one in the virtual sphere against eggheads in California, the other, a bloodier campaign against local populations that succeeds in terrifying just about everyone. The cartels have made clear that the more pressure that’s brought to bear on their operations from above, the more violence they’re prepared to visit on the innocent. It’s hard to see how Google can meaningfully square this circle, no matter how fancy the technology.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nomvuyo permalink
    July 18, 2012 2:33 pm

    Wow, that was an amazing and terrifying read. Has UNDOC commented on the dangers and problems of a google led approach to international security?

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