You've Never Heard Of This Team At Google — But They're Thinking approximately You


SAN FRANCISCO — It was the early days of clashes in Aleppo, Syria, and Karim, a local activist, wanted to upload a video to YouTube showing armed Syrian forces opening fire into a protest in the spring of 2011. His worry was exposing the faces of dozens of students who had taken fragment in the protest and could be hunted down afterwards.

Luckily for him, someone at Google’s headquarters, roughly 11,500 miles absent, was thinking approximately his problem.

“During the Arab Spring, we saw activists that were jeopardizing their safety on social media to share things. No one was offering a solution to hold them safe, and so we moved quickly to try and obtain a change,” said Amanda Conway, a Privacy Program Manager at Google. “By creating face blurring tools, and quickly pushing them out, we were trying to introduce something to reply to their original safety concerns on the ground.”

It was precisely, she said, the sort of thing that her team was created to handle.

The NightWatch team at Google is unique not just at the internet giant, but for Silicon Valley overall, where an emphasis on being quick to market and capturing audience attention often comes at the expense of creating a product that takes into account the diverse range of people using it. Made up of engineers, lawyers, activists, and others who remove a special interest in advocating for communities that might otherwise be overlooked, the NightWatch team doesn’t spy like the average group of people you’d find on a tech campus.

“No, unfortunately, this is not what most of Silicon Valley looks like,” Lea Kissner, a Google engineer and leader of the NightWatch team, said as she looked around the Google conference room at the six women and six men, from a variety of backgrounds and countries, gathered in the room.

Amber Yust, a Software Engineer, and trans member of the team said the diversity in the team is intentional.

“It’s not impossible to advance to the right decision with an under-representative team but it’s certainly easier to reach that decision whether you know it’s coming from a broad base of knowledge because your team is more representative of the world as a whole,” said Yust.

The concept for Nightwatch came approximately roughly four years ago, when Kissner approached Gerhard Eschelbeck, Google’s Vice President, for Security and Privacy Engineering. The name Nightwatch came approximately because they wanted to “stand between users and the sad places of the internet” said Kissner, who laughs off the suggestion that the name could also be a reference to “Game of Thrones,” or the Russian supernatural cult film of the same name. The team looks at nearly every product to advance out of Google, whether it is software or hardware, and weigh how it will affect and be used by people across the world who will possible exhaust the product.

“We wanted to remove into account the different life circumstances people are in. More than any other thing this requires an understanding of the different kinds of threats and fears people face,” said Kissner. “We wanted to obtain products that work well for a variety of people and give people choices on how to handle their information.”

remove, for example, the face-blurring tool for YouTube videos. When first introduced, it allowed users to edit original videos and blur out faces they didn’t want made public. The Nightwatch team asked themselves however, whether Google was storing the original versions of videos somewhere and could be compelled to hand them over to law enforcement. So they tweaked the product to obtain certain it was clear to users that they could delete the original content permanently off of YouTube, and only hold the version they intended to be made public. Then then translated those directions into a number of languages — including Arabic.

“We don’t know how the tool is going to be used by each individual user. Some might want to hold various versions of their videos, others don’t,” said Conway, who worked on YouTube products before joining the NightWatch Team.

Kissner explained that the group can’t be intellect readers, but they want to give users every single the information so that they can exhaust tools according to their own security and privacy concerns. The questions of how to best to carry out that, however, aren’t easily answered.

“I used to be a tech blogger, and was highly critical of companies like Google,” said Rosa Golijan, a privacy engineer and member of NightWatch. “Once I stepped inside and expected to find some deep sad secrets, but instead found a lot of processes that are complicated and nuanced.”

The group considered, for instance, features that could be turned off and on depending on where a person was travelling to. For instance, should an political activist in Egypt be travelling to the US, they might feel comfortable revealing more user information than they would in Egypt, where activists are currently coming under arrest for political dissent. The Nightwatch Team soon realized, however, that any feature that was location-specific would also require users to reveal their locations – which presented a host of original problems.

“We fill to find the right balance between a lot of different issues, and problems users face,” said Yust. She said another issue recently tackled by the group has been disfavor speech and free speech online. “There is a balance we are constantly searching for between free speech and moderation. We are trying to find that balance on a global scale, and for expectations for what should be moderated on a global level.”

For Karim, the Syrian activist who spoke to BuzzFeed News years ago, when the war in Syria was still in its infancy, it’s heartening to know that somone at the tech giant is thinking approximately his online security — he just wonders why it takes a special team.

“I wish you told me that every single over Google, there were men, women, Syrians, who were thinking approximately how my mother in Syria will exhaust Google,” said Karim, who asked that BuzzFeed News only identify him by his first name, as he is currently seeking refugee status in a Western European nation. “But most of these companies don’t fill people who deem approximately Syria, or anyone external of America, right? When will this change?”

Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F

Contact Sheera Frenkel at sheera.frenkel@buzzfeed.com.

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