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Why is Google picking a fight with the mafia?

Last week's Google gathering on how to combat organized crime garnered headlines, but many questions remain unanswered.

By Steven DudleyInSight Crime / July 23, 2012

In this file photo, a Google logo is displayed at the headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Steven Dudley's research here.

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Google Ideas' two-day conference on how to best use technology to fight criminal networks was a forum for tough, anti-mafia rhetoric, but competing interests and few concrete proposals make the proposed geek-government-activist partnership more difficult than advertised.

If there was doubt about Google's resolve in fighting what it calls "Illicit Networks," some of it was washed away with a few words from Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt on day one of the conference: "At the end of the day, there really are bad people, and you have to go in and arrest them and kill them."

The statement, which came during the question-and-answer session and was cut from the video version below, seemed to stun all but Google Ideas' own employees who have seen the more combative side of Mr. Schmidt on his recent trips to Ciudad Juarez, among other places. The conference continued apace with panelists and Google staff alike touting the need to fight the worldwide problem, in large part through technology.

For his part, Schmidt went on to stress the ubiquity and value of cellular phones as well as the use of "packet switching," a means to break information into pieces and distribute it to the right people and places in a way that provides anonymity to the sender and pushes for maximum accountability of the people who receive and process that information. In this way, Google hopes, it can help ensure that timely, accurate information about criminal activities goes to responsible, responsive government authorities.

It's a laudable and important goal, and one that Mexico's Security Minister Alejandro Poire picked up on day two, saying he and his team, in the four months before the incoming government takes over, would push to use 95 million cellular phones in Mexico in the fight against organized crime.

"If you see something, cell [phone] something," Poire joked about the slogan he might employ, which he admitted had no Spanish-language equivalent. (See all available conference video here.)

But the well-choreographed (possibly multi-million dollar) conference was more than a government-Google love fest. Numerous victims gave live testimony of their experiences, and some offered words of inspiration. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) presented its latest work on the trafficking and trade of human body parts. (Full disclosure: I am an ICIJ member).

Mixed into the conference were a few of Google's consulting partners, most notably Palantir, a software design firm that provided the tech tools for ICIJ to sift through and present its investigative story; and Caerus, a private security business that is most famous for providing the US government advice on how to identify and neutralize the most notorious Iraqi and foreign terrorist cells operating during the worst of that country's war.

These partners may be the biggest winners of this event. Following the ICIJ/Palantir presentation, an INTERPOL representative asked how he could get information on the technology used for ICIJ's report. The answer, as I am sure he found out in the plush Four Seasons Hotel hallways between sessions, was not cheap.

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