How do human smugglers use the Internet? What are drug dealers doing with Gmail accounts? Google's think tank, Google Ideas, is currently holding a conference in Los Angeles to discuss what the company calls “illicit networks” and the Internet. Fast Company spoke with Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, about these illicit networks and what Google is doing to fight them.
Cohen is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff—all at the age of 30. Guests at the Google Ideas conference include Eric Schmidt, Interpol secretary general Ron Noble, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, Mexican interior minister Alejandro Proire, Princeton University's Anne-Marie Slaughter, the heads of Dubai Port and the Panama Canal, and senior executives from JP Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse.
Here, our conversation with Cohen:
FAST COMPANY: Can you tell us a little about the Google Ideas conference in Los Angeles?
JARED COHEN: Google Ideas, Google’s think/do tank, is joining the fight against drug cartels, human traffickers, organized crime and other illicit networks. But this is about real human beings. Over the past eight months, we’ve been working with people like Yusril, a former slave fisherman, Somaly Mam, a victim of sex trafficking, and people who have recently escaped from repressive societies like North Korea—and who are flying in a plane for the first time in their lives to join us at the summit.
They, and those with academic and technical expertise, have all come together to help us all better understand the role that technology can play in disrupting illicit networks and empowering people against them. The purpose of this summit, called Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition (INFO), is to bring together people like Yusril and Somaly who are on the front lines of solving this challenge and those who understand the technological tools.
What are you trying to do, specifically?
We are focused on disrupting violent and coercive illicit networks, including drug cartels, the mafia, human trafficking rings, organ harvesters, illicit arms dealers, and forced labor networks. It is easy to look at each of these challenges in its own silo, especially since each represents an enormous challenge in and of itself. But when we look at illicit networks through the lens of technology, we see a common set of problems: patchy information, unreliable tools, and innovation asymmetries.
What is the relationship between criminalized states, captured states, international organized crime and illicit networks?
By definition, transnational crime crosses borders, but efforts to combat it mostly do not. Some illicit networks, such as Hezbollah, are involved in activities as diverse as cigarette smuggling in the United States, money laundering in West Africa, drug smuggling in Europe, and illicit arms sales all over the world. To combat such illicit activities, the first step is to view them holistically rather than through traditional silos, and the second step is to identify critical nodes, such as financial intermediaries, that could play a disruptive role if armed with the appropriate information and tools.
Can you talk a little about Against Violent Extremism?
When Google Ideas convened its first major summit last year, our goal was to build a network of the most credible voices against violent extremism. As such, we brought together 84 former gang members, former jihadists and other religious extremists, former violent nationalists, and former violent far-right fascists. Google Ideas and the Gen Next Foundation provided resources to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Rehab Studio to build a community at Against Violent Extremism of people who had been inside of violent extremism, left, and are now actively and publicly working against their former organizations. The platform creates a bridge between the private sector and articulate voices against violent extremism. Already, the online community has grown to include more than 600 members, many of whom are formers or survivors. There are 30 posted projects, and $500,000 already committed from the private sector.
What role does Google play in combating illicit networks?
As a think/do tank, so far the Google Ideas model has been to spend six months researching and organizing a summit, followed by 12 months building on the summit by facilitating sponsorships, supporting organizations on the front lines, and building tools that harness the power of existing Google platforms in new ways. From our conversations in the lead-up to the INFO summit have come some early experiments, but we are just getting started.
What are the biggest changing factors in the way illicit actors are using the Internet?
The Internet is fundamentally a connective technology, and as it continues to grow, it has enabled illicit actors to better connect and coordinate complex actions, better manipulate and launder money, and better map and understand data in realtime. It behooves us in the technology community to ensure that innovative tools are also being used to disrupt illicit networks, and that on balance technology is a force for good. This is a mission we welcome.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.
[Image: Flickr user Ian Carroll]