A New Documentary Examines Silicon Valley’s Relationship With Data Collection And The NSA

An exclusive clip highlights the long-running disconnect between Silicon Valley’s obsession with data and privacy advocates’ concerns.

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An exclusive premiere clip from Frontline: United States of Secrets: Privacy Lost, which will air tonight at 10 p.m. on PBS, examines one particular moment in 2004 when California Senator Liz Figueroa met with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin over concerns that the company’s latest project, Gmail was invading user privacy with its ability to scan emails in order to serve contextual ads.

Figueroa, who was largely dismissed by most in the tech industry in 2004 for wanting to ban Gmail, recalls the meeting in which Brin asked her, “How would you feel if a robot went into your home and read your diary, financial records, love letters — everything, and then imploded?” Figueroa notes that Brin found the hypothetical practice, which is, in some ways, similar to Gmail to be perfectly normal, telling the California senator, “That’s not violating your privacy … nobody knows about it.” In the exchange, Figueroa then asked, “Does that robot know if I’m sad or if I’m feeling fear?” — to which Brin countered, “Oh no, that robot knows a lot more than that.”

The clip illustrates that not only are privacy concerns with groups like Google and Facebook as old as the companies themselves, but that Google’s technical expertise and influence has left them able to operate with little interference from government organizations. It’s also a reminder of how far users have come since 2004 in accepting data monitoring and invasive ad targeting practices as a necessary cost of using technology. Ten years in, and despite a year fraught with privacy concerns and stories of surveillance, Gmail is now one of the most used and well-regarded email services.

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Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
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