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Barack Obama speaking at Google HQ in 2007. Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

On Monday, the Defense Department’s best-known geek announced that she was leaving the Pentagon for a job at Google. It was an unexpected move: Washington and Mountain View don’t trade top executives very often. But it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The internet colossus has had a long and deeply complicated relationship with America’s military and intelligence communities. Depending on the topic, the time, and the players involved, the Pentagon and the Plex can be customers, business partners, adversaries, or wary allies. Recruiting the director of Darpa to join Google was just the latest move in this intricate dance between behemoths.

To the company’s critics in Congress and in the conservative legal community, Google has become a puppet master in Obama’s Washington, with Plex executives attending exclusive state dinners and backing White House tech policy initiatives. “Like Halliburton in the previous administration,” warned the National Legal and Policy Center in 2010, “Google has an exceptionally close relationship with the current administration.” To the company’s foes outside the U.S. — especially in Beijing — Google is viewed as a virtual extension of the U.S. government: “the White House’s Google,” as one state-sponsored Chinese magazine put it.

But in the halls of the Pentagon and America’s intelligence agencies, Google casts a relatively small shadow, at least compared to those of big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Northrop Grumman, and SAIC. Yes, a small handful of one-time Googlers joined the Obama administration after the 2008 election, but most of those people are now back in the private sector. Sure, Google turned to the network defense specialists at the National Security Agency, when the company became the target of a sophisticated hacking campaign in 2009. (Next week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center goes to federal court in an attempt to force the NSA to disclose what exactly it did to help Google respond.) The Lockheeds and the Northrops of the world share with the Pentagon information about viruses and malware in their networks every day.

Government work is, after all, only a minuscule part of Google’s business. And that allows the Plex to take a nuanced, many-pronged approach when dealing with spooks and generals. (The company did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Google has a federally focused sales force, marketing its search appliances and its apps to the government. They’ve sold millions of dollars’ worth of gear to the National Security Agency’s secretive eavesdroppers and to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s satellite watchmen. And they’re making major inroads in the mobile market, where Android has become the operating system of choice for the military’s burgeoning smartphone experiments. But unlike other businesses operating in the Beltway, Google doesn’t often customize its wares for its Washington clients. It’s a largely take-it-or-leave-it approach to marketing.

“They shit all over any request for customization,” says a former Google executive. “The attitude is: ‘we know how to build software. If you don’t know how to use it, you’re an idiot.’”

Some of that software, though, only made it to Mountain View after an infusion of government cash. Take the mapping firm Keyhole, backed by In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. Google bought Keyhole in 2004 — and then turned it into the backbone for Google Earth, which has become a must-have tool in all sorts of imagery analysis cells. When I visited a team of Air Force targeteers in 2009, a Google Earth map highlighting all the known hospitals, mosques, graveyards, and schools in Afghanistan helped them pick which buildings to bomb or not.

Around the same time, the investment arms of Google and the CIA both put cash into Recorded Future, a company that monitors social media in real time — and tries to use that information to predict upcoming events.

“Turns out that there are several natural places to take an ability to harvest and analyze the internet to predict future events,” e-mails Recorded Future CEO Christopher Ahlberg. “There’s search, where any innovation that provides improved relevance is helpful; and intelligence, which at some level is all about predicting events and their implications. (Finance is a third.) That made Google Ventures and In-Q-Tel two very natural investors that provides us hooks into the worlds of search and intelligence.”

The government and Google have more than a mutual interest in mining publicly available data. The feds ask Google to turn over information about its customers. Constantly. Last fall, the Justice Department demanded that the company give up the IP addresses of Wikileaks supporters. During the first six months of 2011, U.S. government agencies sent Google 5,950 criminal investigation requests for data on Google users and services, as our sister blog Threat Level noted at the time. That’s an average of 31 a day, and Google said it complied with 93 percent of those requests.

Google is pretty much the only company that publishes the number of requests it receives — a tactic which sometimes causes teeth to grind in D.C. But it’s essential to the well-being of Plex’s core business: its consumer search advertising. Google, as we all know, keeps a titanic amount of information about every aspect of our online lives. Customers largely have trusted the company so far, because of the quality of its products, and because there’s some sense that the Plex and the Pentagon aren’t swapping data wholesale. These small acts of resistance maintain that perceived barrier.

Not long ago — in the middle of the last decade, say — Google held an almost talismanic power inside military and intelligence agencies. Google made searching the web simple and straightforward. Surely, the government ought to be able to do the same for its databases.

“You kept hearing: ‘how come this can’t work like Google,’” says Bob Gourley, who served as the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Chief Technology Officer from 2005 to 2007. “But after a while the technologists got educated. You don’t really want Google.”

Or at least, not in that way. Even complex web searches are single strands of information. Intelligence analysts are hunting for interlocking chains of events: Person A in the same cafe as person B, who chats with person C, who gives some cash to person D.  Those queries were so intricate, government engineers had to program each one in by hand, not so long ago. But lately, more sophisticated tools have come onto the market; the troops and spooks have gotten better at integrating their databases. Google’s products are still used, of course. But it’s just one vendor among many.

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KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

“The next 27 minutes are an experiment,” says the faceless narrator. “But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.”

That’s the arresting introduction of Kony 2012, a viral documentary dedicated to stopping the war criminal Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony is infamous for kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers, among other atrocities.

But he’s not famous. That’s what the documentary, and the ambitious viral campaign it spearheads, is trying to change. It’s already attracted both a massive online audience — and a backlash.

The visually sophisticated documentary tells the story of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutal history in Uganda — it doesn’t say much about Kony’s flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic — mostly through the eyes of Jacob, a child refugee whose brother was killed by the militia. At one point, the boy says he would prefer to die rather than to live in the world Kony has made. It hits like an emotional sledgehammer.

And that lays the foundation for the campaign the movie essentially advertises. The nonprofit group behind it, Invisible Children, supports President Obama’s recent deployment of 100 military advisers to Uganda to help its army hunt Kony, a decision that required years of grassroots demands from humanitarian activists. In order to make sure the pressure keeps up, and Kony is ultimately arrested — this year — Invisible Children wants to plaster the cities of the world with red, visually striking KONY 2012 posters, stickers and t-shirts.

The video is essentially a plea to take the campaign viral in time for a planned action on April 20, in which Invisible Children hopes to mass-advertise KONY 2012 that night, globally, so the world will “wake up to hundreds of thousands of posters.” Action kits containing stickers, posters, bracelets, information and t-shirts are going for a $30 donation on the group’s website. And the filmmakers want to enlist celebrities, athletes and politicians for the campaign, everyone from Sen. John Kerry to Bono to Mark Zuckerberg.

Beyond the specifics of the action, the “experiment” the movie refers to is basically a test of global internet culture. It’s an experiment in marshaling connectedness to stop atrocities. And that’s what’s earned KONY 2012 its fair share of critics.

There’s no doubt the campaign has made an impact. In just two days, a documentary that’s too long to be viewed casually has racked up over 4 million YouTube views and counting. The hashtag #stopkony is trending in the U.S. in a major way, and there’s also #kony2012. The movie has co-signs ranging from Human Rights Watch to the rapper Waka Flocka Flame. “Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules,” the documentary promises, “that the technology that brings our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends.”

Not everyone thinks that’s an unambiguously good thing.

While calling KONY 2012 “one of the most pervasive and successful human rights based viral campaigns in recent memory,” the conflict blogger Mark Kersten argues the documentary is “obfuscating, simplified and wildly erroneous.” Kersten takes it to task for ignoring the complexities of the U.S. military deployment, such as the demonstrated failures of earlier missions aimed at stopping Kony, and for neglecting to interview northern Ugandans who want peace at the cost of living with a free Kony.

“‘Kony 2012,’ quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda,” Kersten writes, “precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves.” Other online critics have made similar points; one effectively accuses Invisible Children of lining its own pockets with donations.

It’s way too early to know if the criticism will resonate, or if Invisible Children will respond. For now, the movement is unapologetically grandiose in its aspirations. “If we succeed,” the documentary states, “we change the course of human history.” The first step is ricocheting around the Internet. The second will be whether the world awakes on April 21 to unignorable KONY 2012 posters, banners, stickers and street art. The final step — stopping one of the world’s most infamous war criminals — is far less certain.

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Warco is a first-person game where players shoot footage instead of a gun. A work in progress at Brisbane-based studio Defiant Development, the game is a collaboration of sorts; Defiant is working with both a journalist and a filmmaker to create a game that puts you in the role of a journalist embedded in a warzone. Ars spoke with Defiant’s Morgan Jaffit to learn more about this political game disguised as an First Person Shooter.


arstechnica

The game was actually the brainchild of someone outside of the studio. Tony Maniaty, an Australian journalist who has reported from regions like East Timor and post-Soviet Eastern Europe, envisioned the game as a sort of training simulator. He then began working on the project with filmmaker Robert Connolly, who directed the film Balibo, a political thriller about the deaths of Australian journalists during the conflict in East Timor in 1975. Eventually Jaffit and Defiant were brought into the project.

The game itself — the title of which is actually short for “war correspondent” — follows the story of journalist Jesse DeMarco. Players will experience the process of filming conflicts, going into dangerous situations armed with nothing but a camera. They will then edit the footage into a compelling news story. The scenarios range from intense bursts of action to quieter moments as you discuss the events of the day with fellow journalists in a hotel. Though the main mechanic will be filming the action, Warco is also very much about choice.

“It’s also about navigating through a morally gray world and making decisions that have human impact,” he explained. “It’s about finding the story you want to tell, as each of our environments is filled with different story elements you can film and combine in your own ways. It’s both a story telling engine and an action adventure with a new perspective.”

The scenarios are designed to mirror the recent tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa, in situations cribbed from Maniaty’s real-world experiences in the field.

A game that looks a lot like a first-person shooter but doesn’t actually allow players to fire any bullets could potentially be difficult to market, and one unnamed publisher recently told the studio that “it’s a hard sell to executives to suggest an FPS with no shooting, but this is definitely the sort of game we should be making, as an industry.”

Warco has been in development for four months and Defiant is currently in talks with several publishers to try and bring the game to a wide audience. When that will actually happen, and on what platforms, hasn’t yet been determined.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll find a way to make the project work as a commercial reality.”

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