Silicon Valley through the NSA prism

June 7, 2013

The revelations surrounding the National Security Agency over the last two days underline a well-known fact in the tech world:  Silicon Valley is a land of secrets. There’s Google X, the company’s secretive laboratory, and reports of Apple’s walls of security, erected in an effort to nail down the thick veil of secrecy draped over its yet-to-be-released products.

A detail of the National Security Administration (NSA) is seen in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency's need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The Obama administration on Thursday defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens, calling such information “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats.” (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Then there are the startups, which have taken on the practice, for the purposes of managing server loads, of selectively offering invites and giving only a small group access to their shiny new toys. And then there are the venture capitalists who keep a veil of secrecy in place to hide their future investment plans, which represent potentially billions of dollars worth in competitive advantage.

Exclusivity. Secrecy. They’re part of the Valley’s engine. But, to the casual observer, they may seem anathema to its culture. This is, after all, the land of open data, open source software and public APIs. This is the land of sharing, liking, poking, posting, uploading and circling. This is a land that not only allows but encourages you to broadcast public details about yourself and your environment constantly. It is, culturally, all about openness.

It is also increasingly about intimacy. Silicon Valley is, after all, the home of Facebook, which sees us “use our phones to connect with the people we care about,” and helps us to bring our “friends right there with [us].” Silicon Valley provides, almost literally, a “home” for us too.

Enter the NSA … and FBI, and according to the Guardian, the GCHQ, or the British version of the NSA.

To many inside and outside of the world of technology, initial news that telecommunications giant Verizon was supplying call data to the NSA didn’t come as a surprise. As Webb Media Group CEO Amy Webb writes for Slate:

“When I read about the news last night on my various connected devices, I was shocked. But not at the revelation. Rather, I was taken aback that so many people were surprised and enraged by the blanket surveillance.”

And then the news of the NSA’s PRISM program broke—a program that, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, allowed one of the government’s most secretive agencies to mine data stored by some the nation’s leading technology companies to track foreign targets. Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras report:

“[PRISM] may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.”

Tech companies have denied knowledge of the program and that the NSA had access to their servers, saying they only responded to targeted requests for information. A Google spokesperson denied the government had a “back door” to its servers, an Apple spokesperson denied knowledge of the program and a Facebook spokesperson said the company does not “provide any government organization with direct access” to its servers.

The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, in a letter released Thursday, wrote that “information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect,” emphasizing that the program was targeted to non-U.S. citizens outside of the country.

The news, while “shocking,” is not the first of its kind, but as The Motley Fool’s Chris Neiger shows it’s difficult for these types of stories to pierce peoples’ fascination with technology:

“The recent NSA news show just how complex our digital world is becoming. But despite the government intervention, many tech companies are creating a truly amazing digital revolution.”

But just take a moment to think: We may know more about the NSA’s PRISM program than we do about what the Valley’s next cutting-edge technology will be.

The Washington Post Company’s chief executive and chairman, Don Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

Innovations in 5 will return in its usual format on Monday.

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Dominic Basulto · June 7, 2013