Google Ideas’ two-day conference on how to best use technology to fight criminal networks was a forum for tough, anti-mafia rhetoric, but competing interests and few concrete proposals make the proposed geek-government-activist partnership more difficult than advertised.

If there was doubt about Google’s resolve in fighting what it calls “Illicit Networks,” some of it was washed away with a few words from Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt on day one of the conference: “At the end of the day, there really are bad people, and you have to go in and arrest them and kill them.”

The statement, which came during the question-and-answer session and was cut from the video version below, seemed to stun all but Google Ideas’ own employees who have seen the more combative side of Schmidt on his recent trips to Ciudad Juarez, among other places. The conference continued apace with panelists and Google staff alike touting the need to fight the worldwide problem, in large part through technology.

For his part, Schmidt (pictured above) went on to stress the ubiquity and value of cellular phones as well as the use of “packet switching,” a means to break information into pieces and distribute it to the right people and places in a way that provides anonymity to the sender and pushes for maximum accountability of the people who receive and process that information. In this way, Google hopes, it can help ensure that timely, accurate information about criminal activities goes to responsible, responsive government authorities.

It’s a laudable and important goal, and one that Mexico’s Security Minister Alejandro Poire picked up on day two, saying he and his team, in the four months before the incoming government takes over, would push to use 95 million cellular phones in Mexico in the fight against organized crime.

“If you see something, cell (phone) something,” Poire joked about the slogan he might employ, which he admitted had no Spanish-language equivalent. (See all available conference video here.)

But the well-choreographed (possibly multi-million dollar) conference was more than a government-Google love fest. Numerous victims gave live testimony of their experiences, and some offered words of inspiration. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) presented its latest work on the trafficking and trade of human body parts. (Full disclosure: I am an ICIJ member.)

Mixed into the conference were a few of Google’s consulting partners, most notably Palantir, a software design firm that provided the tech tools for ICIJ to sift through and present its investigative story; and Caerus, a private security business that is most famous for providing the US government advice on how to identify and neutralize the most notorious Iraqi and foreign terrorist cells operating during the worst of that country’s war.

These partners may be biggest winners of this event. Following the ICIJ/Palantir presentation, an INTERPOL representative asked how he could get information on the technology used for ICIJ’s report. The answer, as I am sure he found out in the plush Four Seasons Hotel hallways between sessions, was not cheap.

Google’s power to convene was also evident and, like many conferences, may have been the biggest takeaway for the rest of us. Fighting organized crime requires coordination across numerous platforms and agencies, and Google brought them to one place to trade smiles, business cards, and ideas for working together.

Most of the participants, me included, felt like we’d been invited to hang with the coolest kids on the block. So afraid of the popular kids were we, that Twitter activity around the event (#infosummit2012) was at a minimum and utterly devoid of the snarky and caustic commentary that makes covering such conferences so fun (almost to the point where we could have been our own case study in self-censorship).

But the underlying, and unspoken, question during the conference was just what is Google gaining from picking a fight with organized crime. And as it is for numerous Google initiatives (collecting information on us to hone their search engine, scanning books, etc.), the answer remains somewhat elusive.

For starters, Google Ideas is a strange entity. Google says it’s a think/do tank, but it may be competing for attention within its own company. It is one of at least three Google outside initiatives, which also include Google for Nonprofits, and It is populated with mostly non-engineers and has its offices in New York City.

Its top two, Jared Cohen and Scott Carpenter, are former US State Department officials who are more Beltway than Silicon Valley, and that is where they think their audience is. Cohen and Schmidt, for example, penned their platform editorial for the “Illicit Networks” campaign in the Washington Post.

Last year’s inaugural Google Ideas’ conference was about terrorist networks. And when quizzed about why they picked organized crime for this year’s, Google Ideas team members said they have “complete” autonomy to decide on the themes they will tackle, before going to the upper echelons for the green light.

But while “Illicit Networks” is a sexy, headline-grabbing topic, it does not come without risks. Schmidt focused his comments about what actions are needed in Mexico, but the bigger risk may be needling North Korea, and by default, North Korea’s only ally on the planet, China. The conference included 10 North Korean defectors, five of whom told horrifying stories of what Google called a “mafia state,” only partly skirting the elephant in the room — China’s tolerance and perhaps participation in these activities.

In general terms, conference organizers emphasized that the event was about connecting different worlds — those on the proverbial “front lines” of fighting illicit trafficking with talented engineers.

“That’s a marriage we want to make happen,” Google Ideas’ head Cohen said during one interlude.

In some instances, this courtship was already in full swing, Poire’s and Schmidt’s synchronized speeches being the most obvious example. But ICIJ and Palantir, which has a pro bono arm to work with the less endowed, were even further along in their relationship.

During so-called “break-out” sessions, in which the carefully selected participants were grouped in smaller numbers to workshop problems, these potential “marriages” became even more evident. Interpol led a session on creating a Global Registry. Lookingglass, a cyber-security consulting firm, led a workshop on vulnerabilities in cyber supply chains. Caerus tried to apply its network theory in Northern Mexico.

It was not always clear who the beneficiary of these workshops was, and some participants worried (in whispers, of course) whether they were simply being pilfered of ideas for the for-profit side. Such is the difficulty in bringing together stakeholders with different interests and end goals.

In addition, the conference seemed to bog down most when conference participants really tried to figure out how exactly to employ technology to make people safe from organized crime. Google nearly always emphasized scale, a problematic approach.

Take, for instance, violence in Mexico. Even today, most of that violence is concentrated in small, mostly poverty-stricken or remote areas, making the need to reach 95 million people completely unnecessary and making Poire’s slogan seem more like a bald-faced marketing pitch than a matter of life and death. What’s more, Schmidt and Poire’s application requires a smart phone, something few of the poorer residents in these areas have.

This is to say nothing of the dangers of having these phones in these areas. In Colombia, 400 people have been killed for cellular phones this year. In Guatemala, the government registers four cell phone thefts per hour.

When confronted with these realities, the conference organizers, and most participants, seem to fall back on what appears to be the prevailing theory: more information is better. This theology is most often applied to crowd-sourced mapping, another area that seemed poorly thought out and naively illustrated: Mapping disaster areas and conflict zones are two very different ball games. In some instances, more information makes people more afraid, not less.

The examples of transferring post-disaster mapping to mapping of conflict zones stood alongside other unchallenged and frankly disturbing assumptions about prioritizing the collection and diffusion of information over almost every other matter. During one session, for example, Caerus CEO David Kilcullen victoriously recounted how anti-Gaddafi forces had collected bomb targets in Libya via school children’s recommendations on Google Maps.

Still, Google must be applauded for diving headfirst into this issue. It does not need to do this. It already helps hundreds of organizations, including ours, do our day-to-day work on this issue without doing anything outside of its commercial strategies. Google docs, calendars, readers, photo-organizers, comms-systems, maps, and other products make our daily stories and investigations about crime in the Americas easier to produce, display, and distribute. That’s not an advertisement, that’s a fact.

But whether the company can move from there to directly addressing the issues of organized crime, even after an impressive conference, is still an open question, as are its motives for even considering it.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...