Some of the research
that led to Google's ambitious creation was funded and coordinated
by a research group established by the intelligence community to
find ways to track individuals and groups online.
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
mass surveillance state possible today.
It is a somewhat different creation story than the one the public has heard, and explains what Google cofounders,
...set out to build, and why.
In the mid 1990s, the intelligence community in America began to realize that they had an opportunity.
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:
The intelligence community wanted to shape Silicon Valley's supercomputing efforts at their inception so they would be useful for both military and homeland security purposes.
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?
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
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:
In fact, the internet itself was created because of an intelligence effort: In the 1970s, 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.
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 (WWW).
By the mid 1990s, 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.
called the Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS) project.
The Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS) project
...and others in a white paper that described what the CIA, NSA, DARPA, and other agencies hoped to achieve.
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.
Over the next few years, the program's stated aim was to provide more than a dozen grants of several million dollars each to advance this research concept.
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.
This type of public-to-private innovation system helped launch powerful science and technology companies like Qualcomm, Symantec, Netscape, and others, and funded the pivotal research in areas like Doppler radar and fiber optics, which are central to large companies like,
Today, the NSF provides nearly 90% of all federal funding for university-based computer-science research.
The CIA and NSA's end goal
The research arms of the CIA and NSA hoped that the best computer-science minds in academia could identify what they called "birds of a feather:"
The intelligence community named their first unclassified briefing for scientists the "birds of a feather" briefing, and the "Birds of a Feather Session on the Intelligence Community Initiative in Massive Digital Data Systems" took place at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose in the spring of 1995.
The intelligence community named their first unclassified briefing for scientists the "birds of a feather" briefing.
Their research aim was to track digital fingerprints inside the rapidly expanding global information network, which was then known as the World Wide Web.
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.
Just as "birds of a feather flock together," they predicted that potential terrorists would communicate with each other in this new global, connected world - and they could find them by identifying patterns in this massive amount of new information.
Once these groups were identified, they could then follow their digital trails everywhere.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, computer-science boy wonders
In 1995, one of the first and most promising MDDS grants went to a computer-science research team at Stanford University with a decade-long history of working with NSF and DARPA grants.
The primary objective of this grant was "query optimization of very complex queries that are described using the 'query flocks' approach."
A second grant - the DARPA-NSF grant most closely associated with Google's origin - was part of a coordinated effort to build a massive digital library using the internet as its backbone.
Both grants funded research by two graduate students who were making rapid advances in web-page ranking, as well as tracking (and making sense of) user queries:
The research by Sergey Brin and Larry Page under these grants became the heart of Google:
The intelligence community, however, saw a slightly different benefit in their research:
This process is perfectly suited for the purposes of counter-terrorism and homeland security efforts:
This explains why the intelligence community found Brin's and Page's research efforts so appealing; prior to this time, the CIA largely used human intelligence efforts in the field to identify people and groups that might pose threats.
The ability to track them virtually (in conjunction with efforts in the field) would change everything.
It was the beginning of what in just a few years' time would become Google. 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 Page left to form Google.
The grants allowed Brin and Page to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web-page ranking and tracking user queries. Brin didn't work for the intelligence community - or for anyone else.
Google had not yet been incorporated...
He was just a Stanford researcher taking advantage of the grant provided by the NSA and CIA through the unclassified MDDS program.
Left out of Google's story
The MDDS research effort has never been part of Google's origin story, even though the principal investigator for the MDDS grant specifically named Google as directly resulting from their research:
In a published research paper that includes some of Brin's pivotal work, the authors also reference the NSF grant that was created by the MDDS program.
Instead, every Google creation story only mentions just one federal grant:
But the grant from the intelligence community's MDDS program - specifically designed for the breakthrough that Google was built upon - has faded into obscurity.
Google has said in the past that it was not funded or created by the CIA.
For instance, when stories circulated in 2006 that Google had received funding from the intelligence community for years to assist in counter-terrorism efforts, the company told Wired magazine founder John Battelle,
Did the CIA directly fund the work of Brin and Page, and therefore create Google? No...
But were Brin and Page researching precisely what the NSA, the CIA, and the intelligence community hoped for, assisted by their grants? Absolutely...
The CIA and NSA funded an unclassified, compartmentalized program designed from its inception to spur something that looks almost exactly like Google.
To understand this significance, you have to consider what the intelligence community was trying to achieve as it seeded grants to the best computer-science minds in academia:
Brin's breakthrough research on page ranking by tracking user queries and linking them to the many searches conducted - essentially identifying "birds of a feather" - was largely the aim of the intelligence community's MDDS program.
And Google succeeded beyond their wildest dreams...
The intelligence community's enduring legacy within Silicon Valley
But most people still don't understand the degree to which the intelligence community relies on the world's biggest science and tech companies for its counter-terrorism and national-security work.
Civil-liberty advocacy groups have aired their privacy concerns for years, especially as they now relate to the Patriot Act.
When asked, the biggest technology and communications companies - from Verizon and AT&T to Google, Facebook, and Microsoft - say that they never deliberately and proactively offer up their vast databases on their customers to federal security and law enforcement agencies:
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.
According to the data-request records that the companies make available to the public, in the most recent reporting period between 2016 and 2017, local, state and federal government authorities seeking information related to national security, counter-terrorism or criminal concerns issued,
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...