2023 Excellence in Technology Reporting, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

How Google uses secrecy, market dominance, and connections to rule tech

About the Project

Google’s prowess at extracting revenue from data has helped it become one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies.

It built the planet’s biggest digital advertising business by hoovering up behavioral and personal data from billions of people and helping brands use it to target ads. It mines mobile phone data, browser histories, emails, satellite imagery and other information it can package into new products. For the past seven years, it’s been quietly trying to turn data gleaned from the medical records of U.S. military service members and veterans into potentially priceless artificial intelligence tools.

Google says it gathers and shares this data for the greater good. Its stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

But ProPublica’s innovative, dogged reporting revealed how Google wields market power, technological dominance and political influence to amass and conceal information in service of profits — often in violation of its stated rules, government procedures and international sanctions.

The result is a series of stories that revealed more about the abuses of Google’s multibillion-dollar ad business than ever before, and that pulled back the curtain on the company’s secretive, ongoing campaign to gain exclusive access to a military-owned treasure trove of genetic data about American troops dating back to the Civil War.

The series began with a focus on Google’s dominant digital advertising business. We wrote thousands of lines of code and gathered data from 15 different sources ranging from fact-checking newsrooms to digital-fraud-detection companies and ad tech data aggregators.

As we pursued Google’s primary source of revenue, advertising, we also investigated a secret effort by the company to capture and exploit a rich new vein of data that could unlock massive revenue in the years to come. And as with its ad business, secrecy and data exclusivity were at the core of its effort to secure access to a priceless collection of service members’ and veterans’ tissue samples.

Google’s seven-year gambit to mine data at the military’s Joint Pathology Center, which oversees the largest biorepository in the world, opened with a warning about the sensitivity of its project. “The chief concern,” Google’s liaison in the military warned the leaders of the repository, “is keeping this out of the press.”

ProPublica’s reporting showed how Google — relying on allies in the military and staff rooms of Congress — has campaigned to access, analyze and store sensitive military patient data.