Silicon Valley, for all its professed libertarian culture, is at least partly a child of the Pentagon. Without the influence of – and especially the money from – America’s national-security complex, it is inconceivable that the technology industry would have developed in the way it has over the past half century and more. So the deep ties between Silicon Valley and government, exemplified in recent days by the National Security Agency, are no real surprise.
The surveillance state depends on technology. It is all about capturing and processing digital information. And as the New York Times, building on earlier reporting by The Guardian and others, reported this week, Silicon Valley is a linchpin in the operation.
While this is disappointing, to put it mildly, it is part of a recent pattern. Technology companies have been serving dictatorships for years, not just the US government. In helping the NSA and Pentagon, they no doubt are acting in part out of patriotism, but let’s face the obvious truth: they are also “arms dealers” of sorts for whoever has the cash.
Some of the weapons, or tools, remain proprietary – and this is entirely about money. Data on users/customers is incredibly valuable, and getting more so all the time. The emerging world of “big data” – massive databases of all kinds of information including communications and spending records – has more in common with government surveillance than we might like to think about, notably the wish to “connect dots”, as they say, to predict what (pick one) consumers/terrorists might do next. These data brokers and users are also happiest when the public knows as little as possible about what they are doing, and how they are doing it, probably because the creepiness quotient is a wild card.
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum calls all this the “surveillance-marketing complex,” the logical extension of the military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower famously warned against as he left the US presidency in 1960. The NSA and Facebook, he suggests without too much hyperbole, are in the same business.
As I said here last week, none of this is going to get better unless the public understands the catastrophic potential of this marriage of technology and power. Awareness is growing, which is a start even if a willingness to stop, much less reverse, the trend toward the surveillance state is hard to spot. So far, momentum, fear and money are overwhelming liberty.
One of the most depressing aspects of this week’s news came as no shock whatsoever. Skype, the voice, video and text messaging service now owned by Microsoft, has been rendered useless for those who need to discuss truly sensitive information. Over the years I’ve asked a succession of people at Skype to say, once and for all, that there are no back doors or other compromises in the architecture that we’d all been led to believe was fully encrypted, end to end, in a peer-to-peer system. Again and again I got double-talk for answers, so I’d long taken it for granted that the answer was, simply, that we could not trust Skype. As far as I’m concerned, the Times story left no reasonable room for doubt.
The Skype story was of a kind with what we’ve gotten from tech companies in the wake of the NSA disclosures. In fairness to the industry, as I wrote here last week, the government is largely to blame for this, because the companies operate under a system in which they are forbidden from explaining what is actually going on. But until the industry starts fighting harder for its users and customers, it invites us to make the same kind of assumption I’d made about Skype: In the absence of transparency, the only safe belief is that they are all compromised.
When will the great minds of Silicon Valley take up privacy and true security as core values, rather than casual add-ons or, more typically, unwanted features that hurt the business? When will the leaders be willing to sacrifice some profits to do the right thing, or at least let us pay for the genuine security they refuse to offer today? And when will they realize that they are helping to create a political system in which they, too, will be the subjects of big (and little) brotherism that ultimately will deaden innovation?
Here’s a promise: I will buy products and services that offer me more security and privacy. I suspect that there are more people who would also do this than the tech giants believe. Perhaps more startups and investors will smell a nascent market. I believe it exists, and is just waiting for industry to notice.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010