By Yasha Levine, editor of The eXiled and investigative journalist covering Silicon Valley for Pando.com.
For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been covering the “Surveillance Valley” beat for San Francisco-based Pando Daily, investigating the for-profit surveillance business that powers Silicon Valley, and the ways in which this technology is increasingly being used to monitor and control our lives.
I have exposed Google’s deep ties to US intelligence agencies and investigated Google’s role as a global for-profit intelligence agency — an entity that aims to capture and monetize as much of our activity in the real and online world as possible. I reported on the murky and criminal world of digital data brokers, and investigated the detailed dossiers that big tech companies compile on all of us. I have looked at Silicon Valley’s conflicted connections to tech watchdogs like EFF and privacy activists — people and organizations that are supposed to be fighting for our interests, not those of global tech. I have also revealed how the Pentagon and other US intel agencies are heavily involved in funding grassroots privacy activists and encryption technology — including just about every privacy tool endorsed by Edward Snowden.
My work has been generously reviewed by Julian Assange, and has come to the attention of activists, scholars, journalists and politicians. I have received death threats for my reporting, but I have also gotten an amazing amount of encouragement and support from readers around the world.
Above all else, my reporting revealed how worried we all are at the growing, unchecked economic and political power of Silicon Valley — and how little any of us really know about what’s going on in the boardrooms and faceless server farm-warehouses that power big tech. The more I reported on Silicon Valley, the more I was convinced that big tech’s reliance on surveillance to expand and maintain its power is a vital issue that needed to be explored deeper and at greater length.
Now I’ve taken my reporting to the next level with an independent book project — and have launched a Kickstarter campaign to get it going.
The book is called Surveillance Valley: The Rise of the Google-Military Complex.
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Since the start of the Internet revolution, we have been told that we are witnessing the dawn of a new and liberating technology — a technology that will decentralize power, topple entrenched bureaucracies, and bring more democracy and equality to the world. But the Internet did the exact opposite. It increased inequality, birthed massive global corporations, minted new billionaires (23 just last year in California), helped concentrate wealth and power, and expanded the reach of the U.S. National Security State.
How did a technology that supposedly held so such democratic promise so quickly devolve into the dystopian reality we see today? How is all this concentrated power affecting our democratic society? Where is it going? And where will it end?
These are some of the overarching questions that I will address in Surveillance Valley.
Why Kickstarter and not a traditional publisher?
Over the past few months, I’ve talked to several publishers about the book. All of them expressed great interest and excitement about the project, only to suddenly get cold feet. Their reaction wasn’t that surprising, considering that the book will take on not just one or two tech giants, but the whole establishment — Google, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Twitter — companies that these book publishers depend on more and more each day for their basic survival.
The more I thought about the book project and discussed it with my colleagues here at Pando, the more I became convinced that given the subject matter and the powerful corporate interests its taking on, Surveillance Valley should be an truly independent project — a project free of pressure from publishers, advertisers and investors.
What exactly will Surveillance Valley cover?
Surveillance Valley will be an extension of my reporting for Pando Daily: an old-fashioned work of investigative non-fiction that combines my previous work with new exposés, analysis, historical research and the work of scholars and journalists — all of it stitched together in a well-written, tightly argued and immaculately sourced page-turner that will change the way people think about the Internet. Some of the themes explored in Surveillance Valley will be familiar to those who’ve followed my work. But the book will go much deeper, exploring history and issues that I was only able address only in passing, or not all.
Surveillance Valley will be more than just a book about Silicon Valley’s surveillance business. It will tie the issue of big tech to the bigger political and economic problems of our times: oligarchy and runaway corporate power.
The book will…
- Blow the lid off the Google-Military Surveillance Complex: It will investigate Google’s close relationship with US National Security State — from the DARPA grants that funded Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s PhD research to today’s multidimensional collaboration between Google and the US military-intelligence apparatus: DoD spy satellites, CIA search contracts and its aggressive expansion into every cutting-edge military tech imaginable: battlefield robots, rocket technology, Google Glass for soldiers.
- Explore the Silicon Valley arms race: It will look at how other Silicon Valley companies — Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Microsoft — are in a race to dominate the lucrative military and intelligence contracting market, and show how they’re explicitly aiming to become the Boeings, Lockheed-Martins and Booz Allen Hamiltons of the Internet Age.
- Detail exactly what Silicon Valley knows about us: Companies like Google and Facebook aggressively mine user data to compile complex and detailed dossiers, extracting personal information on our personalities, income, interests and friends. What information do these companies collect exactly? This book will find out.
- Examine how Internet giants make money off invading our privacy: It will investigate the inner workings of the Silicon Valley’s for-profit surveillance business model. What do tech companies do with all the data they collect on us? Whom do they sell it to? How do they make money?
- Reveal how Silicon Valley polices our lives: There is a common misconception that no matter how much Silicon Valley companies spy on us, at least they don’t have the power to arrest and jail us. Truth is, they can and do. This book will investigate how the most progressive Internet companies — including eBay, Facebook and Google — engage in pro-active policing. For example: eBay’s massive private police alone has overseen thousands of arrests and convictions around the globe, and hands over complete criminal cases to government prosecutors “on a silver platter.” It will also reveal how these same leading New Economy companies like eBay and others work hand-in-glove with agencies like the DEA, FBI, Homeland Security and others, helping them monitor and arrest those they suspect of committing crimes.
- Investigate the growing political power of Silicon Valley: The book will look at big tech’s growing political and economic power, including Silicon Valley’s deepening alliance with the Koch brothers think-tank network and the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party.
- Tell the real history of the Internet: In the popular telling, the story of the Internet is one of freewheeling creativity and plucky entrepreneurship. But there is another protagonist in this adventure: Uncle Sam. The book will explore the central role that the U.S. government and military played in driving the development of computer technology — from the Cold War, to WWII and all the way back to the 19th century.
- Expose U.S. Government’s funding of privacy activists and anti-government privacy technology: The book will investigate and explain why the Pentagon — along with the State Department and other government agencies dedicated to expanding American power abroad — funds just about every open source Internet privacy technology in use today, including the Tor Project and other tools recommended by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
- Help protect your privacy: Silicon Valley spends enormous resources to keep us ignorant and in the dark about the industry’s invasive surveillance practices. We can’t protect ourselves from what we don’t know exists. This book will fill this information vacuum and expose what big tech companies — Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay — want to keep hidden from you.
We live in an age of extreme political disenfranchisement, extreme poverty and almost total control over public life by monopolistic corporate interests, a time when any kind of real democratic change seems all but impossible. It’s a bleak time, but it’s also exciting — a chance to start broad social and political movement to remake society into a community worthy of the 21st century.
The Internet, and the greater global telecommunication infrastructure, is a central part of this bigger struggle. And that makes understanding the Internet — its history, its politics, its power, where it was and where it’s going — so crucial. It’s an important discussion for us to have, but it’s one that is not being heard nearly enough.
Surveillance Valley will be my contribution to filling this void.
I really appreciate your support.
Surveillance Valley art by Brad Jonas.