What would happen if the most powerful technology company in the world and the largest clandestine spying agency in the world joined forces?
No need to wonder. Just look around you. It's happened already. Thanks to an insidious partnership between Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) that grows more invasive and more subtle with every passing day, "we the people" have become little more than data consumer commodities to be bought, sold and paid for over and over again.
With every smartphone we buy, every GPS device we install, every Twitter, Facebook, and Google account we open, every frequent buyer card we use for purchases -- whether at the grocer's, the yogurt shop, the airlines or the department store, and every credit and debit card we use to pay for our transactions, we're helping Corporate America build a dossier for its government counterparts on who we know, what we think, how we spend our money, and how we spend our time.
What's worse, this for-profit surveillance scheme, far larger than anything the NSA could capture just by tapping into our phone calls, is made possible by our consumer dollars and our cooperation. All those disclaimers you scroll though without reading them, the ones written in minute font, only to quickly click on the "Agree" button at the end so you can get to the next step -- downloading software, opening up a social media account, adding a new app to your phone or computer: those signify your written consent to having your activities monitored, recorded and shared.
It's not just the surveillance you consent to that's being shared with the government, however. It's the very technology you happily and unquestioningly use which is being hardwired to give the government easy access to your activities.
In this way, the NSA no longer needs to dirty its hands by spying on Americans' phone, email and Internet activities, and the government can absolve itself of any direct wrongdoing. They can go straight to the source, as evidenced by the close relationship between Google higher-ups Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander. With Google in its hip pocket, the NSA can just bypass any legislative restrictions dreamed up to appease the electorate and buy their way into a surveillance state.
The government's motives aren't too difficult to understand -- money, power, control -- but what do corporate giants like Google stand to gain from colluding with Big Brother? Money, power, control. As privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier observed, "The main focus of massive Internet companies and government agencies both still largely align: to keep us all under constant surveillance."
There's a good reason that Google doesn't charge for its services, and it has nothing to do with magnanimity, generosity, or altruism. So what does Google get out of the relationship? Simple: Google gets us.
It turns out that we are Soylent Green. The 1973 film of the same name, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, is set in 2022 in an overpopulated, polluted, starving New York City whose inhabitants depend on synthetic foods manufactured by the Soylent Corporation for survival. Heston plays a policeman investigating a murder, who then discovers the grisly truth about what the wafer, soylent green -- the principal source of nourishment for a starved population -- is really made of. "It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people," declares Heston's character. "They're making our food out of people. Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle for food."
Oh, how right he was. Soylent Green is indeed people, or in our case, Soylent Green is our own personal data, repossessed, repackaged and used by corporations and the government to entrap us. In this way, we're being bred like cattle but not for food -- rather, we're being bred for our data. That's the secret to Corporate America's success.
Google, for example, has long enjoyed a relationship with clandestine agencies such as the CIA and NSA, which use Google's search-technology for scanning and sharing various intelligence. The technology leviathan turns a profit by processing, trading, and marketing products based upon our personal information, including our relationships, daily activities, personal beliefs, and personalities. Even the most seemingly benign Google program, Gmail, has been one of the most astoundingly successful surveillance programs ever concocted by a state or corporate entity.
Email, social media, and GPS are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Google has added to its payroll the best and brightest minds in the fields of military defense, robotics (including humanoid robotics), defense, surveillance, machine learning, artificial intelligence, web-controlled household appliances (such as Nest thermostats), and self-driving cars. These are the building blocks of the global electronic concentration camp encircling us all, and Google, in conjunction with the NSA, has set itself up as a formidable warden.
The question, when all is said and done, is where will all this technology take us? It's a conundrum I explore at length in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, which looks to film, fiction and art as indicators of the police state that now surrounds us, brought about with the help of the government and its corporate partners.
At this rate, it won't be long before we find ourselves looking back on the past with longing, back to an age where we could speak to whom we wanted, buy what we wanted, think what we wanted without those thoughts, words and activities being tracked, processed and stored by corporate giants, sold to government agencies, and used against us by militarized police.
George Orwell's description of the world of 1984 is as apt a description of today's world as I've ever seen: "You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."