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Schmidt: Not even US gov't can get at Google user data

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt tells the crowd at South by Southwest that the company's efforts to secure its user data from attacks are now complete.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, left and Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen, who were interviewed at South by Southwest Interactive on Friday. Google

Though he didn't get into specifics, Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, told a packed house in Austin, Texas, on Friday that the company has completed its efforts to secure user data against unauthorized access.

On the first day of the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference, Schmidt told panel moderator Stephen Levy of Wired that the solution to governmental intrusions was "to encrypt data more."

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"We are pretty sure that now the info inside of Google is safe from prying eyes, including those of the US government," said Schmidt, who clarified that his company was still subject to the Patriot Act and "secret" US courts.

Schmidt and Levy were joined on stage by Jared Cohen, with whom Schmidt co-authored "The New Digital Age," which was published last year. The book examined how technology and the Internet were changing society.

Schmidt said that he saw US government intrusions, including the National Security Agency accessing Google user data without Google's knowledge, as no different from similar incursions by other governments.

"We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010. We were attacked by the NSA in 2013," Schmidt said.

However, that doesn't mean Schmidt saw heroism in the actions of leakers. Schmidt said he was seriously "shocked, shocked that Julian Assange leaked the transcript" of a conversation Schmidt had with him.

The issue of who gets to decide what information is available to the public was a topic of discussion, both in Schmidt and Cohen's book and on stage today.

Though Schmidt said Google believes in a "free and open Internet for all people, not just Americans," he was skeptical of the motives of people who leak information.

Levy anonymously cited a Google executive who told him that the biggest adversary to privacy was the US government, a statement Schmidt did not contest. The coming improvements to encryption technology, Schmidt said, will keep the Internet safe and open even in countries like Iran that want to "Balkanize" and create their own Internet.

Schmidt and Cohen also addressed the deep split in the San Francisco Bay Area, Google's home turf, between people who work for tech companies and those who don't.

Schmidt said he was "very worried" about the problem but that the solution was to embrace technology.

"There's no way to hold back the technology. We can get through [the tension] with more education, openness, entrepreneurship, [and] capitalism," he said.