Google execs: our technology can be used to fight narcoviolence in Mexico

In a Washington Post op-ed, Google's executive chairman (and former CEO) Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen argue the case for technology as a tool to aid citizen activists in places like Juarez, Mexico. Schmidt and Cohen recently visited the drug-war-wracked border town, and describe the climate of violence there as "surreal."

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?

In a sense, we are talking about dual crowdsourcing: Citizens crowdsource incident awareness up, and responders crowdsource justice down, nearly in real time. The trick is that anonymity is provided to everyone, although such a system would know a unique ID for every user to maintain records and provide rewards. This bare-bones model could take many forms: official and nonprofit first responders, investigative journalists, whistleblowers, neighborhood watches.

I'll be interested to hear what people in Juarez, and throughout Mexico, think of the editorial. The notion that crypto, Tor, or other anonymity-aiding online tools might help peaceful observers is not a new one, and not one that activists in Mexico need outsiders to teach them about. There are plenty of smart geeks in Mexico who are well aware of the need for, and usefulness of, such tools. But Google execs speaking directly to the conflict, and how widely-available free tools might help, is a new and notable thing. Red the rest here. (thanks, @martinxhodgson)


    1. Delicious popcorn is always good; but I suspect that there might not be much of a show here. 

      Schmidt is no longer with Google, and now runs some VC/startup incubator and does something related to the New America Foundation(which seems to have a fairly wide range of interests; but includes a bunch of  foreign policy/counterterrorism/national security/whatnot on its list of interests).

      If I had to guess, Schimdt (“in an era of asymmetric threats, “true anonymity is too dangerous.”) is either just op-ed-ing, or is floating the notion of another strategy to be undertaken by the various shadowy-quasi-private-but-our-customers-are-pretty-much-100%-creepy-three-letter-agencies nerd spook shops that already do various sort of data mining, surveillance, and intelligence type work for the feds.

      I’d be surprised to see Google Governance pop up, and much less surprised to see some startup with an anodyne name peddling a ‘organic human-terrain aquisition and analytics’ package set up shop somewhere in Mclean, VA in some blandly gated office park and then drop off the radar…

  1. I would be fascinated(and not altogether optimistic) to see how the cartels would respond in this hypothetical system. 

    By virtue of not having been killed by the feds or by their competitors, the presently extant cartel agents have shown themselves to be a reasonably canny lot, with a certain knack for a mixture of evasion of and subversion of the forces arrayed against them. 

    Given that the web(and Google’s search results) are forever under attack by spammers, scammers, bot-herders, CC-resellers, and SEO slime, most of which are chasing surprisingly thin margins and praying for volume, I imagine that narcotics-trafficking level margins could get you some very competent subverters-of-technological-systems indeed.

    Worst case would be the fairly uncreative(but already so common as to be somewhere between ‘plausible’ and ‘inevitable’) When Schmidt(of “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” and “I think that over time, on the internet, there will be less anonymity. And I actually think that’s good” fame…) describes a system where ” The trick is that anonymity is provided to everyone, although such a system would know a unique ID for every user to maintain records and provide rewards” it is very hard not to think of the rather risible incident a few years back with AOL’s ‘anonymized’ search records dump(for those who don’t remember, AOL released a big dump of search queries for research purposes, with user information replaced by arbitrary unique ID numbers. It took about 15 seconds for clueful security researchers to real-world-ID a fair slice of the ‘anonymized’ searchers and learn a good bit about them.)

    So, worst case, a cracker, whether an external attacker or an inside man, grabs the database, those ‘unique IDs’ correlate to real people surprisingly easily, and Mexico’s consumption of body-dissolving industrial solvents temporarily spikes.

    The more interesting; but less catastrophic, scenarios are the ones where the DB remains secure; but the need to allow anonymous input allows cartel agents to attempt to game the system(perhaps they could purchase some ‘persona management’ software from HBGary to make the job easier?). Depending on the details of the implementation, all sorts of interesting shenanigans might be possible… ‘Google bombing’ legitimate informants to drown out their information? variants on the classic ‘SWATing’ phone prank, attempting to drive investigations toward their enemies, etc, etc.

  2. …although such a system would know a unique ID for every user to maintain records and provide rewards.

    Um, no.

    1. Yup.  That statement you quoted gives the impression that Google is paying easy lip service without thinking things through.  Oh, and then there’s the explicit overconfidence in the security of its’ own product and services.

  3. Speaking of which, whatever happened to Anonymous and OpCartel, from last November?  First it was on, then it was off, then on again… then news and announcements evaporated.

    1.  There were threats to kill people, random people I think, if this happened and they decided that they could not in good conscience continue with the op.

  4. The issue isn’t that the system will be exploited or hacked.  The issue is that the cartels will suddenly decide, however illogical, that google is their new enemy, and do to them what they do to the police and journalists, by driving up to Mountain View and randomly beheading people and shoving their dismembered genitals in their mouth.  Good luck.

  5. A better method would be to end the prohibition. Don’t criminalize addiction, heal it. Put the drugs under doctor control, have the government regulate them (and collect taxes) and remove the massive amounts of profits for the cartels. Alcohol prohibition also led to massive violence, until alcohol was legalized and brought under government regulation.

    1.  I’m inclined to agree with a lot of your points– & unilaterally support marijuana legalization– but I’m also pretty comfortable having some harmful substances illegal, though again, healing addiction rather than criminalizing it is still far better than some foolish “war on drugs.”  I guess my point is that things like heroin or cocaine are pretty dangerous, & even if they were decriminalized, they’d still be regulated enough to allow smugglers (cartels) to make money.

  6. Or we could just end the very stupid, counterproductive drug war and knock the narco-cartels’ profits right out from under them. 

  7. Generally, it’s a mistake to suppose that social problems (for instance, the Drug War) can be solved by technology.   As several point out above, there is an obvious solution to the problem, but people prefer the sadism, superstition, greed and stupidity of the present situation.  Technology can’t solve that.

    1.  I think you’re right, the solution isn’t technological but I’m not so sure that legalizing drugs will make organized crime vanish into thin air… Meaning its not so simple.

      1. Oh c’mon, there’ll always be loansharking, gambling, prositution, banking, and Congress as activities in which Organized Crime might remain involved.

      2.  Agreed.  But drug prohibition in a context of U.S. gun culture and Mexico’s caste/class system (mostly racial, apparently) is a recipe for extended gang warfare, even civil war.  We could at least take the drugs and the associated money out of the mix.  However, that would be rational.

  8. Also, Tide’s new White and Bright (TM) technology can be used to fight the stubborn stains that are so common in machinegun-strafed mexican villages!
    Who says American corporations don’t care about humanitarianism?

  9. ” Sources don’t need to pierce their anonymity.”

    Unless they want to use Google+, of course. 

  10. Of course, Google can tell your intent from the way you type, so those innocent bystanders and citizen journalists can log in and provide data, and the malfeasant narcogangs will be blocked from those same tools by the Keyboard of Justice Intent Detection Algorithm.

  11. Why, o why, am I thinking of and large sums of money changing hands?

  12. It would be wonderful if this worked. Perhaps this is partially an “Angriff nach vorne,” in this case a pre-emptive attack co-opting wikileaks-style grass roots whistleblowing in order to distract us from how dangerous Google+, and now facebook, are making things for those protesters around the world by trying to eliminate pseudonyms. First Google+ insisted on real names only, and then facebook recently started trying to crowdsource the elimination of pseudonymic accounts.

  13. Technocratic solutions are rarely holistic solutions. I mean sure, having a way to communicate without fear of reprisal is great but technology needs to be a solution to a specific problem, and I don’t see the problem this technology will solve. Who are you going to provide information anonymously to? Not the Mexican federal government, they can’t officially do much on anonymous tips. 

    Case in point: a few years ago, I was staying at my mother in law’s house, it was just me and my infant son who was asleep and its around 10:00 pm, I heard a knock at the gate and I go outside to see who it is, it was the army, there’s a hummer like vehicle outside the house and about 10 soldiers with their weapons at hand, to make a short story shorter they were acting on an anonymous tip, (I think they got the wrong address since the guy behind the house is most likely what was reported) And they could not come in unless I gave them permission to search the house, never heard from them again.

    Here, there’s a feeling that everybody knows who the bad guys are, sometimes they make it blatantly obvious, there was another time I got on the bad side of someone I shouldn’t have (yes there was a girl involved, I was stupid(er), a patrol bike drove by at that moment, I called for help and the cop threatened to take me in for disturbing the peace, turns out these guys were buddies, they shook hand and bro-hugged in front of me.
    So we don’t need whistleblowers, we’d be glad to have anonymity, but maybe you heard of anonymous and the cartels? Basically, Anonymous wanted to do some sort of operation, the cartel threatened to kill people massively if that happened, and anonymous backed off.

    So I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know the problem and this solution is way off the mark.

  14. Money.  Big fucking money is the name of this Drug War game. 

    Here’s how you tell if someone is actually interested in stopping the violence or not: Do they even *consider* ending prohibition as an option?  Do they address it and talk about it or do they laugh it off, as if the example with alcohol meant nothing? 

    If they aren’t talking about ending prohibition, it is because they see money to be made in perpetuating the violence and property crime.  Extra incarcerations for non-violent activities, militarized policing, foreign military adventures, possible direct money from the cartels themselves, etc… there is huge money and huge power available in these things, and you’ll find policy-makers at the top of the pile.

    A pork project with Google is another great way to take and distribute our tax dollars while *not actually stopping the violence.*

  15. It is interesting to see how close they come to advocating for the anarchist system of justice yet turn away at the last second.

    (Anarchist system of justice: The goverment no longer holds a monopoly on police / court services. Anyone can volunteer or be paid to take on clients as a mediator (court system) or security guard (police system), with the public choosing whatever service provider they think is best).

  16. As long as narcomoney gets laundered by the billions via legal big ass banks the likes of HSBC it don”t matter fighting it: underworld is top of the world nowadays!:
    – “”HSBC’s net income last year was $16.8 billion. It operates in about 80 countries around the world. Its U.S. division is among the top 10 banks operating in the United States. It has assets of roughly $210 billion in its U.S. operations.

    Money laundering takes profits from the trafficking of drugs, arms or other illicit activities and passes them through bank accounts to disguise the illegal activity.

    The bank used its U.S. operation as a “gateway” into the U.S. financial system for other HSBC affiliates, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the subcommittee’s chairman, told reporters Monday.

    Because of lax controls against money laundering, HSBC Bank USA “exposed the United States to Mexican drug money” and other suspicious funds, Levin said.

    The report says the drug cartels laundered money through the bank’s U.S. division from 2002 through 2009″.
    Read more:

  17. Buenas tardes cuates,

    The new breaking story  down here is that the Army has acquired communication surveillance equipment amounting to roughly 700 million dollars worth. That’s a lot of pesos!

    And we only know about this because an anonymous source leaked the info to journalist Cármen Aristegui, who collaborates with CNN Latin America (among other venues).

    And it’s no secret that there’s a lot of political espionage going on between rival parties. Everybody has their own ‘bird on the wires’, including no doubt the druglords.

    Furthermore, the President ordered the signing of the ACTA last week, even though citizen protests have managed to convince the Senate to withhold the approval. A new Senate will replace them this year though, and the new government is likely to be FAR less tolerant toward online citizen liberties.

    Finally, I can only add that anonymity is already being used by bloggers who want to report the violence derived from the fight against organized crime, without any kind of official or editorial filters. Blog del Narco is a great example for this, but obviously the government is highly critical of these endeavors, and consider these blogs to be propaganda frontlines working for the cartels.

    So, in short… this is gonna get A LOT worse before it starts to get better, and the Internet will be one of the frontlines where these battles will be fought. Hopefully informed citizens will be able to find the adequate tools to empower themselves against both the ruthless cartels, and the corrupt government.



  18. End the prohibition and the cartels will evaporate.

    Google should throw their weight behind legalization if they truly want to make a difference.

    (Supporting the Drug War ) == (Doing Evil)

    Andrés Monroy-Hernández & Panagiotis “Takis” Metaxas on #Narcotweets: Reporting on the Mexican Drug War using Social Media
    “In the last few years, the war among drug cartels and the Mexican authorities has intensified, claiming the lives of many innocent people. Citizens, using Social Media have organized a communication network reporting daily on the dangerous zones of their cities. How did it start and how effective are they? In this presentation Andrés Monroy-Hernández — post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research and a Fellow at the Berkman Center — and Panagiotis “Takis” Metaxas — Professor of Computer Science and Founder of the Media Arts and Sciences Program at Wellesley College — analyze the information sharing practices of people living in cities central to the Mexican Drug War, and examine how a handful of citizens aggregate and disseminate information from social media, many of whom are anonymous.”

    Some interesting data from four different Mexican cities around citizen reporting on the drug war using social media.  This was a good presentation.

  20. The Mexican government would do better by making all “illegal” drugs legal, thus removing the illicit market for them, thus causing the price to plummet. Also, they should make it legal for all citizens to arm themselves so they can more easily defend themselves from the evil-doers. Allowing your own citizens to be left unarmed for possible beheading is monstrous. Since police are toothless, give fangs and claws to the people!

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