When 17-year-old high school graduate Betsy saw the protests after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she decided something needed to be done. "I wanted to figure out a way to amplify black voices," she said. "I've seen the injustices they've been facing, and it'd just be wrong not to do anything about it." So she created a Google Doc and began compiling useful information.
It soon grew into a 22-page document with a linked table of contents, including subsections dedicated to petitions, donations, and how to contact officials, as well as other relevant resources. Like minds have found it extremely useful: It's been shared more than 10,000 times since May 27.
But such use of Google's productivity software on the front line of the ongoing battle over social justice is making privacy advocates nervous.
That's because Betsy isn't alone. Unlike recent protests in Hong Kong, where those on the streets coordinated their actions in closed Telegram groups and on secretive websites to avoid the watchful eye of the state, protesters involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and those supporting them digitally, have often relied on free and open channels of communication.
A multitude of Google Docs and Sheets have sprung up coordinating donations to the cause and ways to demonstrate solidarity. Some are chaotically created lists of email addresses, links and other information, compiled in a hurry by those wanting to help support the protests and raise awareness. Others are carefully formatted Google Sheets that provide a checklist of actions people can take — a to-do list of dozens of steps to combat systemic racism. All have been viewed by hundreds of people simultaneously at their peak.
In many cases, documents have been populated by using Google Forms — for instance, to collect data on donations to bail funds so organizations can match funding, or to collect signatures for a petition against Harvard University police.
"It's a huge problem," said Aral Balkan, a digital privacy activist. "Google is a surveillance capitalist — just like Facebook, Snapchat, etc. Surveillance and profiling are how these companies make their billions. They are not safe spaces." And, he added: "If [people are] using Google Forms, they should consider that Google has a record of everyone who participates and everything they contribute."
Alongside general skepticism about the way Big Tech collects and processes data for itself, there are also concerns about how the government could request access to data belonging to protestors. Documents recently uncovered by BuzzFeed News reportedly showed that the Justice Department had granted the Drug Enforcement Administration authority to "conduct covert surveillance" on those protesting the killing of George Floyd.
Compounding those concerns is the fact that the United States is at a key moment in surveillance reform.
"Timing is very crucial here because since March, Congress has been considering the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020, which would renew three surveillance authorities and add safeguards to protect our civil liberties," said Ashkhen Kazaryan, director of civil liberties at TechFreedom, a tech policy think tank.
"Since many of the surveillance provisions actually lapsed as Congress has failed to reauthorize and reform these authorities, no one can truly say what kind of surveillance tools and authorities would law enforcement agencies use to access protesters' data," added Kazaryan. However, she points out that the direction of travel, including the rights allegedly given to the DEA by the Justice Department, is enough to give pause. "Many of these agencies have a track record of disregarding the Fourth Amendment and our constitutional rights," she said.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
The situation also alarms Billy Easley, who works on tech and criminal justice policy at Americans for Prosperity, and is a former legislative counsel for Sen. Rand Paul. "What I'm worried about is the Department of Justice using existing authorities they have to gain access to people's metadata, internet browsing history, in the name of trying to quell riots and violence in these cities," he said. "They currently have the ability to do that, and I think there needs to be a concerted effort in Congress to prevent that from happening."
This could all put Google in a tough spot. Last weekend, it added a note to its homepage: "We stand in support of racial equality, and all those who search for it." And its CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted: "Today on U.S. Google & YouTube homepages we share our support for racial equality in solidarity with the Black community and in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery & others who don't have a voice. For those feeling grief, anger, sadness & fear, you are not alone."
It is plausible that it may soon need to balance that support with government requests.
Protocol asked Google whether it would refuse to hand over information about who accessed and inputted data into these documents if asked to do so by the U.S. government. Pointing to its policy for how the company deals with government requests for user information, Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, said: "We have a well-established process for managing requests from law enforcement for data about our users. We only respond to valid requests, seek to give notice to users, and we push back on overly broad requests to protect users' privacy."
Meanwhile, what do those who continue to use Google Docs as part of the protests make of all this? Nandini Mitra, a U.K.-based law student who created a to-do list for Black Lives Matters supporters, is aware of the risks of Google. "It's a data hoover," she said. But, she reckons, some things are worth giving up your data to a Silicon Valley giant for. "I guess I've made an implicit calculation of the risks and gains to be made. Google is so ubiquitous, it's everywhere, and it would be hard to make something that's accessible to everyone without using Google."