When Trump Threatens Google, Here’s What He Doesn’t Get

Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel look overr the podium before the start of the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016.

Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel look overr the podium before the start of the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Days after the Treasury Secretary cleared the U.S. tech giant of national security concerns, the president was rage-tweeting again.

Google’s relationship with China may threaten national security, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday, contradicting his own Treasury Secretary’s recent assurances that the limited work done by the U.S. tech giant on the Chinese mainland poses no such threat.

“There may or may not be National Security concerns with regard to Google and their relationship with China. If there is a problem, we will find out about it. I sincerely hope there is not!!” Trump tweeted.

That came two days after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that his department had determined that Google’s work in was “very minimal,” concerned only “open source” technology that it presented no national security concerns. 

Treasury’s interest was sparked by various Google ventures, including its 2017 announcement that it would open an AI research center in China, and its ongoing efforts to help the Chinese government censor the results of searches by Chinese citizens.

“The president and I did diligence on this issue and we’re not aware of any areas where Google is working with the Chinese government that in any way raises concerns,” Mnuchin said Wednesday.

But Mnuchin isn’t the person Trump turns to for advice on tech. He also listens to Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor. Thiel has long nursed rancor against Google, which he’s called a monopoly and more recently, guilty of “seemingly treasonous” actions. He’s donated to politicians, such as Josh Hawley — former Missouri attorney general, now junior U.S. Senator from the state — who investigated the firm in 2017. One Thiel protege and former chief of staff, Michael Kratsios, serves as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. 

On July 14, Thiel gave an address at the National Conservatism Conference in which he asked a series of loaded (and dubiously founded) questions about the search giant’s relationship with China.

As reported by Axios, those questions were: 

  • “Number one, how many foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated your Manhattan Project for AI?
  • "Number two, does Google's senior management consider itself to have been thoroughly infiltrated by Chinese intelligence?
  • "Number three, is it because they consider themselves to be so thoroughly infiltrated that they have engaged in the seemingly treasonous decision to work with the Chinese military and not with the US military... because they are making the sort of bad, short-term rationalistic [decision] that if the technology doesn't go out the front door, it gets stolen out the backdoor anyway?"

Thiel finished by saying it was up to the CIA and FBI to ask those questions. “I would like them to be asked in a not excessively gentle manner,” he encouraged.

The premise of at least two of the questions was based on no evidence at all. The premise of the third was founded on an incorrect (or intentionally deceptive) misinterpretation of what the company was—and is—doing with the U.S. military and in China. 

Google’s DeepMind subsidiary, an ongoing research effort to produce neural networking solutions — the so-called AI “Manhattan Project” Thiel mentioned — doesn’t do work with either the U.S. military or the Chinese. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis has well-stated reservations about the use of the company’s product in a military context and has signed a pledge to forgo work on any project that he feels might be described as “autonomous weapons.” 

U.S. military leaders, such as outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned that Google may be helping the Chinese military through such research partnerships. But while Dunford said that such collaborations did provide a direct benefit to the Chinese military—because of the Chinese government’s ability to harvest commercial technology from private firms for national purposes—Dunford stopped short of claiming that Google was directly working for the Chinese military.

The AI project that Google was working on for U.S. Defense Department, Project Maven, was a completely and totally separate endeavor. 

Last June, Google said it would not renew the contract with the military after employee outcry. 

But the idea that Google does no work with the U.S. military is also not quite true.  A Tuesday story from The Intercept suggests the company continues to invest in AI startups that can do some of the work that Google was doing under Maven. And Google has continued to pitch the military on cloud storage and other, limited, AI capabilities. 

There may be a number of serious questions that government officials, law enforcement, and policy-makers should be asking themselves about burgeoning technology partnerships between Silicon Valley companies and China, but they aren’t the questions that Peter Thiel is asking.

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