While noting that Google and other US companies are bound by the Patriot Act and the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court if they are subpoenaed, Google chairman Eric Schmidt said that his company has tightened its encryption and believes that its users data is safer.
“We are pretty sure that now that the info inside of Google is safe from prying eyes,” Schmidt said during an appearance at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, “including those of the US government.”
Addressing a mixed bag of promise and peril — but mostly promise — Schmidt talked about a future that’s more connected and prosperous. Drawing heavily from his book, “The New Digital Age,” co-authored by fellow panelist Jared Cohen, Schmidt showed optimism about the future despite developments after the book’s release in last April, including NSA privacy revelations and global unrest and uprisings.
He and Cohen painted a grim picture about recent events in troubled countries. During the original Arab Spring in 2010, some governments tried to turn off internet access to its citizens. Now they are more sophisticated.
“What’s happened in the last year is the governments have figured out you don’t turn off the internet: you infiltrate it,” Schmidt said. “The new model for a dictator is to infiltrate and try to manipulate it. You’re seeing this in China, and in many other countries.”
Cohen gave a horrific example from Damascus, Syria, where he said the military is asking citizens to see their cell phones at checkpoints. “If you don’t give it to them, they hold a gun to your head,” Cohen said. Cohen said he was told that in one case, after an anti-government message was found, the phone owner was shot in the head by a sniper.
Other threads in the discussion, moderated by Wired senior writer Stephen Levy:
- That there is a danger repressive governments will try to create alternative and locked-down Internets. Iran is actively working to do this, Schmidt said. Schmidt said this effort will be very difficult — citing the proliferation of ways to access the web — and will be more difficult as time goes on and tech companies work on ways to work around the barriers.
- That income inequality and how to deal with societal problems — such as chronic employment — that arise from it will be the No. 1 problem for government in the future. His solutions: more education, immigration, connectivity to the internet.
- The importance of education and encouraging students to go to college. To a teacher in the audience who asked what to tell gifted students while trying to prepare them for jobs that don’t exist yet, Schmidt said: ”Figure out a way to teach grit and perseverance because that’s the thing that will distinguish them.”
Postscript: The headline has been changed to make it clear that Schmidt believes that Google has made its user data safer from governmental surveillance, if not guaranteeing that its completely safe.
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