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.
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During so-called "break-out" sessions, in which the carefully selected participants were grouped in smaller numbers to workshop problems, these potential "marriages" became even more evident. Interpol led a session on creating a Global Registry. Lookingglass, a cyber-security consulting firm, led a workshop on vulnerabilities in cyber supply chains. Caerus tried to apply its network theory in Northern Mexico.Skip to next paragraph
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It was not always clear who the beneficiary of these workshops was, and some participants worried (in whispers, of course) whether they were simply being pilfered of ideas for the for-profit side. Such is the difficulty in bringing together stakeholders with different interests and end goals.
In addition, the conference seemed to bog down most when conference participants really tried to figure out how exactly to employ technology to make people safe from organized crime. Google nearly always emphasized scale, a problematic approach.
Take, for instance, violence in Mexico. Even today, most of that violence is concentrated in small, mostly poverty-stricken or remote areas, making the need to reach 95 million people completely unnecessary and making Poire's slogan seem more like a bald-faced marketing pitch than a matter of life and death. What's more, Schmidt and Poire's application requires a smart phone, something few of the poorer residents in these areas have.
This is to say nothing of the dangers of having these phones in these areas. In Colombia, 400 people have been killed for cellular phones this year. In Guatemala, the government registers four cell phone thefts per hour.
When confronted with these realities, the conference organizers, and most participants, seem to fall back on what appears to be the prevailing theory: more information is better. This theology is most often applied to crowd-sourced mapping, another area that seemed poorly thought out and naively illustrated: Mapping disaster areas and conflict zones are two very different ball games. In some instances, more information makes people more afraid, not less.
Bomb targets from school children
The examples of transferring post-disaster mapping to mapping of conflict zones stood alongside other unchallenged and frankly disturbing assumptions about prioritizing the collection and diffusion of information over almost every other matter. During one session, for example, Caerus CEO David Kilcullen victoriously recounted how anti-Gaddafi forces had collected bomb targets in Libya via school children's recommendations on Google Maps.
Still, Google must be applauded for diving headfirst into this issue. It does not need to do this. It already helps hundreds of organizations, including ours, do our day-to-day work on this issue without doing anything outside of its commercial strategies. Google docs, calendars, readers, photo-organizers, comms-systems, maps, and other products make our daily stories and investigations about crime in the Americas easier to produce, display, and distribute. That's not an advertisement, that's a fact.
But whether the company can move from there to directly addressing the issues of organized crime, even after an impressive conference, is still an open question, as are its motives for even considering it.
--- Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. http://www.insightcrime.org/. Find all of his research here.
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