As I See It: Co-opting The Valley
July 8, 2013 Victor Rozek
Singularity is so passé. At least the variety that proposed to meld a single individual with a machine. How small, how private, how self-absorbed. Dare to dream big. Why join with a single system when you can meld with the entire Silicon Valley?
Co-opting the Valley appears to be the latest not-so-secret strategy of the National Security Agency, whose interests and methodologies increasingly overlap with those of technology firms. By definition, a surveillance state plans to live forever. And, for the NSA, eternal life requires uninterrupted access to galactic flows of data. But why go through the trouble of stealing something when, like the Borg, you can simply absorb the information technology sector and get it all for free.
The intelligence community and technology providers have entered a state of strained symbiosis. Like a married politician with a mistress, publicly they disavow having carnal relations while privately they are busy feasting on one another. The NSA is hungry for private data, while Silicon Valley is hungry for public money–and each has lots of what the other wants. For all their feverish denials, spooks and geeks are getting as close as intertwined snakes.
It begins with the revolving door between industry and government. Industry repays helpful public servants with mucho-lucrative lobbying gigs, while government hires industry executives to “regulate” their old industry. Wink-wink.
Max Kelly is not a household name, but no less a poster boy for that. He was the former chief security officer at Facebook, the guy that over one billion people unknowingly trusted to protect their private (and sometimes embarrassing) data. But in 2010, Kelly started batting for the other side. The New York Times reported that he “went to work for another giant institution that manages and analyzes large pools of data: the NSA.” If anyone knew how to compromise Facebook security, it would be Max, a man apparently willing to rise above principle.
For the most part, the NSA makes no secret of its recruitment efforts. According to the Times, the head digital spook himself, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and chief of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, showed up in Vegas to give the keynote at a hacker conference. He looked “stiff in an uncharacteristic T-shirt and jeans,” said the Times. Just a regular guy who happens to control unknown budgetary billions and the best high tech toys in the world, chatting about job opportunities in government service. NSA officials are often seen trolling for talent at technology and information security conferences. Where better to find the right skill sets? Silicon Valley has become to the NSA what college football is to the NFL: A low-cost training ground from which the best players can be plucked.
The agency also invests heavily in startups and promising new technologies. The head of The Capital Group, a venture capital firm, is described by the Times as “an advanced scout for the NSA.” The CIA has its own in-house sugar-daddy called In-Q-Tel that invests in promising high-tech startups. Like any company, tech firms that accept seed-money are beholden to their investors, except these investors are not interested in making a profit.
Corporations, however, are very interested in profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, companies are eager to help. The Times reports that “current and former industry officials” revealed their companies “secretly put together teams of in-house experts to find ways to cooperate more completely with the NSA, and to make their customers’ information more accessible to the agency.” Gives new meaning to customer service.
Silicon Valley also enjoys a lucrative business arrangement with the intelligence community. The desire for massive data capture, storage, and analytics creates a bottomless pit of demand for hardware, software, and services. The intelligence community has become one of Silicon Valley’s biggest clients. With nearly unlimited funding, little oversight, and the authority granted by the secret FISA court, the NSA can afford to reward obliging tech firms and apply enormous pressure to reluctant ones. For their part, technology giants fear regulation, prohibitions on monopolistic practices, tax evasion reform, and liability for corporate misconduct. Currying favor with the government buys them a degree of immunity from the law, and get-out-of-jail-free cards should their indiscretions become public.
As recent revelations by (pick one) traitor/patriot Edward Snowden suggest, operation PRISM is in full swing and tech industry denials of blanket cooperation are largely for show. The relationship between geeks and spooks may appear publicly adversarial, but it is privately cozy.
In a functional sense, Silicon Valley is in the same business as the intelligence community: It collects all available raw data and applies advanced analytics to discern patterns and probabilities. It’s a natural alliance of means if not ends. For Silicon Valley, the intersection of profit motive and patriotic fervor is fertile ground. Add to it the invitation to be in heady proximity to the exercise of power, and a values conflict emerges.
On the one hand, Americans embrace a set of professed values, particularly the freedoms and principles of governance delineated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Most would identify these as the nation’s highest values. But we live by a set of operational values, which, although important, are lesser values. In this case they may include such things as convenience, safety, and affluence. This creates an ethical dilemma because the exercise of operational values at the cost of professed values is a compromise which always produces a net loss.
Whether within an individual or a society, when operational values trump professed values, dissonance occurs. The organism is out of integrity with itself, at odds with what it holds most dear. I suspect that’s what happened to Edward Snowden: even though he enjoyed a high paying job and an idyllic Hawaiian lifestyle, he could no longer live with the dissonance. He voted for his professed values, even at the cost of his freedom.
In 1792 James Madison wrote: “What a perversion of the natural order of things! To make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.” For the moment, Silicon Valley appears to be consigning its formidable technologies to the advancement of power. Tellingly, both the intelligence and tech communities understood the need for concealment. Ultimately, the only way to impose operational values on a society is through secrecy and force. Unless, of course, the citizenry ceases to care.
Our commitment to privacy has become wobbly. More theoretical than actual. Consistently, what people say they want in the way of privacy does not match their online behavior. Research suggests that it’s not privacy per se that people want–sharing has not only become fashionable but is a basic human need–they want control over their personal privacy so they can decide what to share and with whom. Complicated privacy policies, misleading assurances of data security by service providers, and the illusory isolation of sitting alone in a dark room staring at a screen, all contribute to the impression of confidentiality. The normal signs that warn us there is a privacy breach are simply not visible on the Internet.
And so our personal power–the power to control who we let in and who we keep out, and what part of our lives we reveal to whom–trickles down to Silicon Valley where it’s promptly melded with NSA systems. It’s singularity of a new sort, one in which those being absorbed were not given a choice.