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These are the core obsessions that drive our newsroom—defining topics of seismic importance to the global economy. Our s are made to shine in your inbox, with something fresh every morning, afternoon, and weekend. Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of that origin story. They hoped to direct the supercomputing revolution from the start in order to make sense of what millions of human beings did inside this digital information network.

That collaboration has made a comprehensive public-private mass surveillance state possible today. It is a somewhat different creation story than the one the public has heard, and explains what Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry set out to build, and why. In the mid s, the intelligence community in America began to realize that they had an opportunity.

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The supercomputing community was just beginning to migrate from university settings into the private sector, led by investments from a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. A digital revolution was underway: one that would transform the world of data gathering and how we make sense of massive amounts of information.

Could this supercomputing network, which would become capable of storing terabytes of information, make intelligent sense of the digital trail that human beings leave behind? Intelligence-gathering may have been their world, but the Central Intelligence Agency CIA and the National Security Agency NSA had come to realize that their future was likely to be profoundly shaped outside the government. It was at a time when military and intelligence budgets within the Clinton administration were in jeopardy, and the private sector had vast resources at their disposal.

If the intelligence community wanted to conduct mass surveillance for national security purposes, it would require cooperation between the government and the emerging supercomputing companies. To do this, they began reaching out to the scientists at American universities who were creating this supercomputing revolution.

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These scientists were developing ways to do what no single group of human beings sitting at work stations in the NSA and the CIA could ever hope to do: gather huge amounts of data and make intelligent sense of it. In fact, the internet itself was created because of an intelligence effort: In the s, the agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for military, intelligence, and national security purposes—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA —linked four supercomputers to handle massive data transfers. It handed the operations off to the National Science Foundation NSF a decade or so later, which proliferated the network across thousands of universities and, eventually, the public, thus creating the architecture and scaffolding of the World Wide Web.

Silicon Valley was no different.


By the mid s, the intelligence community was seeding funding to the most promising supercomputing efforts across academia, guiding the creation of efforts to make massive amounts of information useful for both the private sector as well as the intelligence community. They funded these computer scientists through an unclassified, highly compartmentalized program that was managed for the CIA and the NSA by large military and intelligence contractors. The research would largely be funded and managed by unclassified science agencies like NSF, which would allow the architecture to be scaled up in the private sector if it managed to achieve what the intelligence community hoped for.

The grants were to be directed largely through the NSF so that the most promising, successful efforts could be captured as intellectual property and form the basis of companies attracting investments from Silicon Valley. Their research aim was to track digital fingerprints inside the rapidly expanding global information network, which was then known as the World Wide Web. Could an entire world of digital information be organized so that the requests humans made inside such a network be tracked and sorted?

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Could their queries be linked and ranked in order of importance? By working with emerging commercial-data companies, their intent was to track like-minded groups of people across the internet and identify them from the digital fingerprints they left behind, much like forensic scientists use fingerprint smudges to identify criminals. Once these groups were identified, they could then follow their digital trails everywhere.

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Both grants funded research by two graduate students who were making rapid advances in web- ranking, as well as tracking and making sense of user queries: future Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry. The research by Brin and under these grants became the heart of Google: people using search functions to find precisely what they wanted inside a very large data set. The intelligence community, however, saw a slightly different benefit in their research: Could the network be organized so efficiently that individual users could be uniquely identified and tracked?

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This process is perfectly suited for the purposes of counter-terrorism and homeland security efforts: Human beings and like-minded groups who might pose a threat to national security can be uniquely identified online before they do harm. The ability to track them virtually in conjunction with efforts in the field would change everything. The two intelligence-community managers charged with leading the program met regularly with Brin as his research progressed, and he was an author on several other research papers that resulted from this MDDS grant before he and left to form Google.

The grants allowed Brin and to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web- ranking and tracking user queries. Google had not yet been incorporated. Google has said in the past that it was not funded or created by the CIA. To understand this ificance, you have to consider what the intelligence community was trying to achieve as it seeded grants to the best computer-science minds in academia: The CIA and NSA funded an unclassified, compartmentalized program deed from its inception to spur the development of something that looks almost exactly like Google.

And Google succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Digital privacy concerns over the intersection between the intelligence community and commercial technology giants have grown in recent years. Civil-liberty advocacy groups have aired their privacy concerns for years, especially as they now relate to the Patriot Act. But even a cursory glance through recent public records shows that there is a treadmill of constant requests that could undermine the intent behind this privacy promise. Direct national security or counter-terrorism requests are a small fraction of this overall group of requests, but the Patriot Act legal process has now become so routinized that the companies each have a group of employees who simply take care of the stream of requests.

In this way, the collaboration between the intelligence community and big, commercial science and tech companies has been wildly successful. When national security agencies need to identify and track people and groups, they know where to turn — and do so frequently.

That was the goal in the beginning. It has succeeded perhaps more than anyone could have imagined at the time. Discover Membership. Editions Quartz. More from Quartz About Quartz. Follow Quartz. These are some of our most ambitious editorial projects. From our Series. Published December 8, This article is more than 2 years old. The CIA and NSA funded an unclassified, compartmentalized program deed from its inception to spur something that looks almost exactly like Google.

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