Why Google Is Entering the Drug War

The company that long ago vowed not to be evil is now confronting it head on. Google just announced a new initiative in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival geared towards combatting violent illicit networks...

Jul 17 2012, 4:10pm

The company that long ago vowed to not be evil is now confronting it head on. Late yesterday Google added to its already deep portfolio of governmental-like projects a new initiative geared towards combatting violent illicit networks like drug cartels, organ harvesters, arms dealers and human traffickers. It’s not like Google is creating its own international police force or something, however Robocop that would be. Instead, the search giant is partnering with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival to convene a summit called “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition” in Los Angeles this week to talk over the issues. The objective, Google says, is “to discover ways that technology can be used to expose and disrupt these networks as a whole — and to put some of these ideas into practice.”

A promo for the INFO Summit

I know what you’re thinking: How on Google Earth does an Internet company plan to stop some of the worst crime epidemics – one that has claimed over 50,000 lives and cost an estimated $320 billion in the last five years alone – with a bunch of panel discussions and plenary sessions? Drawing fresh attention to the problem certainly can’t hurt. Under the auspices of Google Ideas, the company’s “think/do tank,” the event will bring together survivors from drug cartels along with engineers, tech leaders and product managers to come up with solutions to these problems. There will even be some government officials from Mexico present to talk through the issues.

An effort by a sleek, popular, and prodigious tech company to crack down on cartel violence easily sounds nicer than recent efforts by Washington. The so-called Operation Fast and Furious, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sold monitored the sale of thousands of guns to low level cartel members with the hope that they could trace the guns to the drug lords and make some arrests, became a disaster when ATF agents lost track of a number of the weapons. One of them was ultimately linked to the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped, frustrated look of drug-fighting governments everywhere only makes Google’s enchanted waltz into the fray look all the more compelling.

Last year, residents of Reynosa, Mexico used Google Maps to chart local drug activity (via)

Of course, there’s something in it for Google too: the influence and advertising that comes with using its technology to solve global, government-scale problems. Like all tech big companies, Google is eager to curry favor in Washington, where it is becoming a popular target for privacy wonks (even if its buddy-buddy with the White House). The company may also be eager to show that it can still do lots of good for the world, and set itself off from the corruptions of Wall Street (HSBC, according to a new Senate report, has helped launder drug money).

Even if the private-entity-saves-the-world approach has its own set of problems – remember Kony? – Google’s model has been roundly praised, at least for its good intentions. The company’s ambitious philanthropic arm, Google.org, which began in 2005 with a mission to use 1% of the company’s profits and equity to take on issues like poverty and energy, has struggled to take off in recent years. What was once a plan to build a partly-private philanthropically focused organization became a way to highlight how Google software could do good. The original idea was "to reinvent the world and address a hugely important set of problems with solutions only Google with its immense intellectual talent and resources could find," as Joshua Cohen, a professor of law, politics and philosophy at Stanford told the Times last year. The idea that won out was to "make some headway, maybe a little, maybe a lot, in addressing these really big problems by doing what Google as a company is really good at doing, which is to say, aggregating information."

That said, cartel violence — not to mention organ harvesting, arm dealing and human trafficking — remains a massive problem in need of a range of solutions, not least of which is going after the demand in Google’s home country. Google’s well intentioned involvement certainly can’t hurt efforts to stop the violence, especially if it means finding new ways to describe the criminal impacts of drugs to tech-savvy Americans, and putting a human face on crime networks. “We all know that bad guys use the Internet, but now we’re saying the Internet can also help stop these criminals, and help survivors and advocates find each other and work together,” Pardis Mahdavi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College who is working on the project, said. Expect more big Google saves-the-world projects; just don’t expect change to come instantly.