The Robot Defense: How Google Saw Privacy Before Snowden


May 20, 2014

What’s the view from inside Google when it comes to your privacy?

Former California State Sen. Liz Figueroa got an answer in 2004, when she proposed legislation that would allow users to opt out of targeted advertising in free email services, like Gmail.

“We think it’s an absolute invasion of privacy. It’s like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home,” she told Reuters news agency at the time.

Figueroa was summoned to a meeting with the company’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, to address her concerns. As she retells the story in the below excerpt from the FRONTLINE investigation United States of Secrets, Brin tried to allay her concerns with a unique anecdote involving an imploding robot:

On its website, Google notes that “ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email.” Still, that promise has done little to ease concerns over how the web giant might be used to aid government surveillance.

“Gmail was a privacy disaster,” Chris Hoofnagle, director of Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, told FRONTLINE. “The moment you allow people to look at the content of your communication for some advertising purpose is the moment that the government is going to come along and say, ‘If you’re going to let them listen in for advertising, why don’t you let us listen in for anti-terrorism or for serious crimes?'”

As the Edward Snowden leaks revealed, that’s exactly what happened. In December, The Washington Post reported that the NSA was secretly piggybacking on a Google-specific tracking tool in order to bolster its own surveillance capabilities. Four months earlier, the paper discovered that the agency was tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet firms. Google was on the list, as was Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Skype, AOL and PalTalk.

In Part Two of United States of Secrets, FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith investigates Silicon Valley’s role in the dragnet. How did the nation’s biggest tech companies react when the government asked them to turn over data on millions of ordinary Americans? And what do companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo really know about you?

The film premieres on-air and online tonight, starting at 10 p.m. EST (check local listings). You can watch part One of United States of Secrets, FRONTLINE told the inside story of how the U.S. came to spy on millions of ordinary Americans.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Digital Editor



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Chauvin Trial Lawyers Bring Everything Together in Closing Arguments on Floyd's Death
After 45 witnesses and 14 days of testimony in the Hennepin County District Court trial, two lawyers will make their closing arguments, the final words the jurors hear from them before retreating behind closed doors to deliberate.
April 17, 2021
Of the 5 States with the Most Farmworkers, Only 3 Are Prioritizing Vaccines — and Not All Means of Prioritizing Are Equal, per the CDC
Months after the July 2020 film "COVID's Hidden Toll," FRONTLINE checked in with farmworkers in California and four other big agricultural states and found vaccine rollouts have been uneven.
April 16, 2021
The War in Afghanistan: As Biden Sets U.S. Withdrawal Date, 13 Documentaries Explore the Conflict and Its Impact
Explore nearly two decades of reporting from FRONTLINE on America’s longest war.
April 15, 2021
After Jan. 6, Investigating the Contours of a “Broad Fascist Movement” in the U.S.
In a scene from the new documentary “American Insurrection,” correspondent A.C. Thompson talks with sociologist Pete Simi about the state of domestic extremism in the U.S.
April 14, 2021