5:39pm

Mon April 22, 2013
All Tech Considered

Google Execs Talk Privacy, Security In 'The New Digital Age'

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 12:35 pm

Imagine a world with machines that wash, press and dress you on the way to work and vacations via hologram visits to exotic beaches. In his new book, The New Digital Age, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt does just that — but it's no gee-whiz Jetsons fantasy.

Schmidt partners up with Jared Cohen, a foreign policy counterterrorist specialist poached from the State Department now working for Google Ideas. Together they forecast a raft of new innovations and corresponding threats that will arise for dictatorships, techno revolutionaries, terrorists and you.

Cohen and Schmidt chatted with NPR's Audie Cornish about negotiating the shifting balance between privacy and security in a rapidly changing technological landscape.

Interview Highlights

On the cost in privacy to everyday users of the latest technology

Cohen: "Obviously, there's a lot of conversation about both privacy and security in the context of the first 2 billion Internet users. But what the two of us did as we traveled around the world is we wanted to understand what privacy and security issues might look like in environments where the next 5 billion people come online. And it becomes very interesting when you go to places like Myanmar and North Korea and Saudi Arabia and Libya, and start having conversations about privacy and security."

Schmidt: "One of our core concerns is that unless people fight for privacy, they will lose it in countries which have no history of concern over privacy. In the Western world, the governments will ultimately figure out a balance between these two: the legitimate use ... by the police of this kind of information, and the incorrect use by others. But in many countries, there's no history of privacy at all, and so the government can go in and essentially create a police state without any protections for citizens, and no one will even notice. And once those systems are in place in those countries, it'll be difficult to reform them."

On educating the next generation of Internet users

Cohen: "Whether you're in New York or Saudi Arabia or a part of Asia, educating the next generation as they're coming online young and fast is going to be important, regardless of what kind of society it is ... it's actually going to be relevant years before it's relevant to talk about the birds and the bees."

Schmidt: "So the parent sits there and says, 'There's really no delete button for what my 10-year-old or 11-year-old is about to post, and I really don't want this following them for the next 50 years.' "

On privacy-related lawsuits against Google, and whether the increase in such suits is just a cost of doing business now

Schmidt: "I think it is. In Google's case, we do in fact have this information. It's important that we respect the way we collect it, and the purpose we've collected it for. In fact, the lawsuits in Europe are about the fact that we in fact published ... the ways in which we would use this information, and people want even more disclosure, and we're arguing over how much disclosure is necessary. We think we've done enough. But the fact of the matter is that Google has a huge responsibility to maintain your information, keep it under your control and not misuse it, and we try very very hard to achieve that."

On embedding privacy concerns in new technologies

"Historically, technology people have always assumed that the networks were full of good people — people like themselves ... in fact, the initial Internet structures didn't even have passwords. That's how simple — or simpleton — our model of the world was. Well, of course, we've all grown up now, and we understand that the Internet has bad people as well as good people, and people who want to misuse things, people who want to take advantage of others and steal things and so forth.

"Now, when products are being developed, Google — and this is true of other companies, as well — have sophisticated compliance and legal policies, to make sure that the products not only respect the letter of the law, but also the spirit of our privacy policies and the things that we care about. And I can tell you there have been many, many product reviews at Google where somebody came in with an idea, and we held it, or we pushed it back, and we said, 'You haven't addressed this enough.' ... The technology naturally collects information, because of the way the computers work, and it's important to understand what you're keeping and what you're not keeping, and why."

On data permanence

Schmidt: "From birth till your death now, going forward, your online profile will be shaped more and more by online events, what people say about you, and it will be very difficult for you to control that. And so the reality is that a child growing up today will find more and more of the things said about them and the things they do accumulate over time. What we're seeing is, in one generation we're going from a very small number of people having access to information, to almost everyone having access to the entire world's information. That will change almost everything.

"We believe that these problems can be solved, and one of the great things about our society is that you can write these predictions out, and people will attack them and they will solve them."

Cohen: "Because of our increased visibility into the world's problems, and because the places where these problems are most serious are coming online, we wanted to talk about both the good and the ill that awaits us, because we can't sit back and pretend that only the optimistic things are relevant to us."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish, and it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Imagine a world with machines that wash, press and dress you before work and vacations via hologram visits to exotic beaches. In his new book, "The New Digital Age," Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, does just that. But this is no gee-whiz "Jetsons" fantasy. Schmidt partners up with Jared Cohen, a foreign policy counterterrorist expert whom Google poached from the State Department.

Together, they forecast a raft of new innovations and corresponding threats that will arise for techno revolutionaries, terrorists and you. We began with an issue that Google has been repeatedly sued over, privacy, and how companies, governments and private citizens navigate that dangerous road.

Eric Schmidt explains their approach.

ERIC SCHMIDT: Unless people fight for privacy, they will lose it in countries which have no history of concern over privacy. In the Western world, the governments will ultimately figure out a balance between these two: the legitimate use of the police - by the police of this kind of information and the incorrect use by others.

But in many countries, there's no history of privacy at all. And so, the government can go in and essentially create a police state without any protections for citizens, and no one will even notice. And once those systems are in place in those countries, it'll be difficult to reform them.

JARED COHEN: The other aspect of this which we've come to appreciate even more because we've met a lot of parents around the world, whether you're in New York or Saudi Arabia or, you know, a part of Asia, educating the next generation as they're coming online young and fast is going to be important regardless of what kind of society it is and regardless of...

CORNISH: You write that people should actually have the privacy talk, the online privacy talk, maybe even before they have the sex talk.

COHEN: Oh, we think they absolutely should because it's actually going to be relevant years before it's relevant to talk about the birds and the bees.

SCHMIDT: So the parent sits there and says, there's really no delete button for what my 10-year-old or 11-year-old is about to post, and I really don't want this following them for the next 50 years.

CORNISH: Now, Eric Schmidt, at one point in the book, you suggest that companies will need to invest more in legal departments because of all the lawsuits over privacy. And your company, obviously, has been criticized and sued over privacy concerns. At least six European governments right now are investigating Google's privacy policies. Is this the cost of doing business in the future for technological companies in the Digital Age?

SCHMIDT: I think it is. In Google's case, we do, in fact, have this information. It's important that we respect the way we collect it and the purpose we've collected it for. In fact, the lawsuits in Europe are about the fact that we, in fact, published the fact that we - the ways in which we would use this information and people want even more disclosure. And we're arguing over how much disclosure is necessary. We think we've done enough.

But the fact of the matter is that Google has a huge responsibility to maintain your information, keep it under your control and not misuse it. And we try very, very hard to achieve that.

CORNISH: You raise a lot of questions about what this privacy could mean for people's ability to protect their identity, to protect their reputation, to protect themselves against governments. But you don't offer a whole lot of solutions...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...in terms of ways of doing this. Why is that?

COHEN: I think - this is Jared. Part of the reason we wrote this book is because we have a fundamental belief that there's no country in the world that's worse off as a result of the Internet's arrival. But with 5 billion new people coming online, while we believe that that is fundamentally true and going to be more true, we also have unprecedented visibility into the world's challenges. You know, as 5 billion new people come online, we wanted to provide an honest account of both the good and the bad that awaits us.

What we tried to do in the context of our book is describe a number of challenges on the horizon, very few of which we believe are intractable; unearth some of the debates and attributes of the challenges that await us, and foster a debate about this. We believe it's irresponsible to only paint an optimistic view of the future without talking about, for instance, the 57 percent of the world's population that lives under autocracy that is going to come online faster than any other demographic in the world.

CORNISH: And, Eric Schmidt, for you, that same question. I have to ask as someone who's the head of the company that for a long time it was the kind of do-no-evil attitude. But is this book recognizing that there aren't going to be positive actors always?

SCHMIDT: I'm quite convinced that the Western world can resolve this tension between privacy and security well. I'm not as convinced that the countries that are new, that are run by autocrats will get this right. And you can imagine, for example, that the Chinese censorship technology could easily be exported by China into other countries in return for minerals, which we talk about in the book. So you could imagine that the world will not be the same as what we expect here in the United States or in Europe.

CORNISH: Now, you talked about this no delete button. And in the book, you write about this idea of data permanence, that everything we do online will kind of - it never really gets deleted. And after a while, you have this enormous online kind of dossier that's sitting there and is potentially vulnerable.

Now, doesn't this kind of fly in the face of what has been a longtime argument from technology companies that people can opt out if they have privacy concerns, that there's a way to kind of get out of this if you don't want to be a part of it?

SCHMIDT: We were - this is Eric. We were making the point about society as an overall point. Companies, of course, do opt-ins and other kinds of things. But from birth till your death, now going forward, your online profile will be shaped more and more by online events, what people say about you. And it will be very difficult for you to completely control that.

And so the reality is that a child growing up today will find more and more of the things said about them and the things they do accumulate over time. We'll all, of course, deal with that as a society and there will be a change in social mores. But the fact of the matter is that our generation never had this problem. What we're seeing is, in one generation, we're going from a very small number of people having access to information to almost everyone having access to the entire world's information. That will change almost everything.

CORNISH: You know, I think with all of these ideas, they sound very exciting, but the rest of the chapter will then paint such a bleak picture...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...for how it can all go wrong, you know, that I'm not left feeling totally optimistic about what you're saying.

SCHMIDT: But - by the way, that was - we were not trying to leave you optimistic. We were trying to be honest with the opportunity and the challenges that we have ahead of us. Think of it as a road map.

CORNISH: But it's leading into a very dark wood there, Eric Schmidt.

SCHMIDT: But see - but...

CORNISH: I mean, if a titan of tech industry is saying there be wolves, you know, it's not very, you know, empowering for the average citizen who just wants to, like, you know, upload a couple of photos of their family picnic.

SCHMIDT: Well, we believe that these problems can be solved. And one of the great things about our society is that you can write these predictions out, and people will attack them and they will solve them. Jared?

COHEN: Because of our increased visibility into the world's problems and because the places where these problems are most serious are coming online, we wanted to talk about both the good and the ill that awaits us because we can't sit back and pretend that only the optimistic things are relevant to us.

CORNISH: That's Jared Cohen, writer of "The New Digital Age." We'll continue our conversation tomorrow when his co-author, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, tells us exactly what they were doing in North Korea.

SCHMIDT: The North Koreans, when you meet with them, are very opaque. They spend five to 10 minutes giving a speech which references their respected leader many, many times. We would then give our report, and they would write it all down, and then they would not comment on it. It was impossible for us to determine whether they're really going to act on our input or not, but we tried.

CORNISH: That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.