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Google’s Trust Crises Should Get Everyone Thinking About the Future Powers of Big Tech—Cyber Saturday

October 27, 2019, 2:26 AM UTC

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Google’s trust problem is worsening.

Chief executive Sundar Pichai said as much at a recent company-only town hall meeting. “We are genuinely struggling with some issues—transparency at scale,” he said, as reported by the Washington Post. Pichai added that he is attempting to understand—and address—whatever may be causing the “breaking of trust.”

Appropriately enough, a recording of the remarks leaked to the Post—presumably by some disgruntled employee.

Google is not alone, of course; all over Silicon Valley tech giants are suffering crises of conscience, internally and externally. But Google’s famously freewheeling workforce has led the most prominent clashes to date—over new hires, supposed surveillance tools, politics, alleged sexual misconduct payouts, military work proposals, and more. (See my colleague Beth Kowitt’s exploration of the deepening rift in her excellent feature from earlier this year, “Inside Google’s Civil War.”)

It’s interesting to consider Google’s mounting trust crises in light of the company’s recent “quantum supremacy” announcement. Google researchers claimed on Wednesday to have demonstrated, for the first time, a major computing milestone: that a quantum computer under its control can blazingly outcompete any regular computer, or even supercomputer, at a special—if not yet entirely useful—computational task. The landmark achievement, assuming it holds true (there is some dispute), heralds a coming age when quantum computers will, if all goes according to plan, help develop new medicines, reduce energy waste, advance artificial intelligence techniques, and, more worryingly, render obsolete many current methods of encryption.

I visited Google’s quantum lab, a funky, surfer-friendly outpost in Santa Barbara, Calif., earlier this week. In neighboring counties, fires raged, ominously, as Google’s whizzes shared the fruits of their labor with about a dozen journalists.

During a Q&A session, one reporter asked why the world should entrust such promising—and potentially devastating—technology to the hands of Big Tech, given the widespread—and often warranted—backlash against the industry. (Imagine the following, troubling scenario: A private sector company develops a full-fledged quantum computer, effectively all-seeing eyes, able to unzip Internet data everywhere in the years to come.) The Google team responded by saying A) it’s still so very early, and B) they have committed to sharing as much as they can about their research openly. John Martinis, one of Google’s chief quantum scientists, offered that he hoped, by sharing this work, the world would take note and prepare migrations well in advance to newer, “post-quantum” forms of cryptography.

I followed up by asking whether the scientific community, in China and elsewhere, were sharing work as openly as Google’s team purported to be. Quantum crew founder Hartmut Neven, who was decked out in an ensemble more befitting an Electric Zoo DJ than a scientist, answered aslant, reaffirming the company’s policy of transparency. “Of course, it’s a delicate dance,” he said. “Openness makes us much faster,” but, “on the other hand, competitors can read what we’re doing and are getting therefore faster as well.”

Martinis added to this, reiterating the team’s philosophy. He said he only agreed to join Google—bringing along his whole lab from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014—after receiving assurances from Google cofounder Larry Page that the company would commit to openness. Page had told him, Martinis said, that he would rather succeed by sharing discoveries than fail in private.

The quantum computing efforts underway at Google—and at IBM, Microsoft, Honeywell, and elsewhere—are still in their infancy, to be sure. But one wonders how the world will cope with the anticipated arrival of these machines’ extraordinary, unprecedented abilities as they begin to come online. There’s not much choice, at the present time, but to trust tech’s overlords not to be evil.

A cold comfort for many, no doubt.

Robert Hackett | @rhhackett | robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

May the Force be with you. Microsoft has beaten out Amazon for the Pentagon's highly prized JEDI contract, a $10 billion chunk of business that entails providing cloud computing services to the Defense Department for 10 years. IBM, Oracle, and Google had also been vying to win the deal, a centerpiece of the military's tech modernization efforts. Amazon—which worked tirelessly to woo the government, in spite of President Donald Trump's animosity toward founder Jeff Bezos—had formerly been considered the frontrunner. 

Now you see me. Comcast is lobbying congressional lawmakers to block a privacy measure Google and Mozilla intend soon to implement in their respective web browsers, Chrome and Firefox. The change would encrypt connections to "domain name service," the Internet's phonebook, or website routing directory, thus preventing Internet service providers and others from knowing the sites people visit. Comcast argues that this power grab by Google will monopolize DNS data and centralize a key part of the Internet. Privacy advocates don't buy Comcast's arguments.

Now you don't. Russian influence campaigns angling to interfere in the 2020 presidential election are undermining their own efforts to spread disinformation far and wide by trying, somewhat paradoxically, to stay under the radar. Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, says that the media giant can spot hi-jinx when things go viral unusually quickly. Baddies are adapting and acting with more caution, which "weakens their ability to build an audience," he says. 

Catching the virus. Symantec antivirus products keep causing Google and Microsoft software to crash.  Meanwhile, Avast, another antivirus provider, said it stopped hackers from subverting its popular CCleaner file clean-up software, used by millions of people. In a separate incident two years ago, security researchers at Cisco discovered that CCleaner had been compromised with a "backdoor."

Rudy Giuliani, cybersecurity expert.

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ACCESS GRANTED

Remember Apple vs. FBI? In 2016, the tech giant very publicly defied the U.S. government's request to unlock—and decrypt the contents of—an iPhone used by a terrorist. Well, Jim Baker, who was the bureau's general counsel during that skirmish, has pulled a remarkable 180-degree turn. He writes for Lawfare, a national security blog affiliated with the Brookings Institution think tank, that the time has come for law enforcement to relent, accept reality, and get on board with strong encryption.

In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities—including law enforcement—to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.

FORTUNE RECON

What Battleground States Need to Do to Prevent Voting Machine Hacking in 2020 by Hadley Hitson

Why You Shouldn’t Save Your Debit or Credit Card Numbers on Store Websites or Apps by Kristin Larson

TikTok Called a ‘Potential Counterintelligence Threat,’ by Bipartisan Duo of Senators by Alyza Sebenius

Online Anonymity Is Increasingly Under Threat in Europe by David Meyer

Facebook Is Still Figuring Out How to Police Deepfakes by Danielle Abril

NordVPN Suffered a Security Breach, Denies Being Hacked by Lisa Marie Segarra

Flaw in Google’s New Pixel 4 Raises Risk of Snooping While You Sleep by Alyssa Newcomb

ONE MORE THING

What is the universe fundamentally composed of: particles, fields, or both? That question—which has nagged philosophers of science since Plato—is the subject of a recent essay by Charles Sebens, an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, on Aeon, an online magazine. As Sebens relates, the English scientist Michael Faraday, a pioneer of electromagnetism, posited in 1844 that the world contains only fields. More than half a century later, Albert Einstein conjectured that nature's building blocks consisted of a combination of the two. Meanwhile, a contemporary Swiss theoretical physicist, Walther Ritz, disputed Einstein, arguing just for particles. The debate is still unresolved.