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 about exposing the faces of dozens of students who had taken part in the protest and could be hunted down afterwards.
Luckily for him, someone at Google’s headquarters, roughly 11,500 miles away, was thinking about 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 keep them safe, and so we moved quickly to try and make 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 respond to their new safety concerns on the ground.”
It was exactly, 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 take a special interest in advocating for communities that might otherwise be overlooked, the NightWatch team doesn’t look 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 a trans member of the team, said the diversity is intentional.
“It’s not impossible to come to the right decision with an underrepresentative team but it’s certainly easier to reach that decision if 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 idea for NightWatch came about roughly four years ago, when Kissner approached Gerhard Eschelbeck, Google’s vice president for security and privacy engineering. The name NightWatch came about because they wanted to “stand between users and the dark places of the internet,” said Kissner, who laughs off the suggestion that the name could also be a reference to Game of Thrones, or to the Russian supernatural cult film Nightwatch. The team looks at nearly every product to come out of Google, whether it is software or hardware, and weighs how it will affect and be used by people across the world.
“We wanted to take 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 make products that work well for a variety of people and give people choices on how to handle their information.”
Take, 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's members asked themselves, however, if 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 make sure it was clear to users that they could delete the original content permanently off of YouTube and only keep the version they intended to be made public. Then they translated those instructions 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 keep 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 mind readers, but they want to give users all the information so that they can use tools according to their own security and privacy concerns. The questions of how to best to do 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 [I] expected to find some deep dark 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 traveling 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 new problems.
“We have 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 hate 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 about his online security — he just wonders why it takes a special team.
“I wish you told me that all over Google, there were men, women, Syrians, who were thinking about how my mother in Syria will use 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 have people who think about Syria, or anyone outside of America, right? When will this change?”