[discuss] Fwd: The NSA and the Corrosion of Silicon Valley (by Michael Dearing, VC @ Harrison Metal)

Nick Ashton-Hart nashton at ccianet.org
Tue Dec 31 21:16:05 UTC 2013

Dear colleagues,

I thought many of you would appreciate seeing this opinion piece, written by a prominent member of the Silicon Valley tech community of long-standing. 

The NSA and the Corrosion of Silicon

Categories: Uncategorized<http://www.harrisonmetal.com/category/uncategorized/>
by Michael Dearing

I believe the people who work at the NSA are patriots. They devote their
considerable intellects to preserve, protect, and defend the people of the
United States. I wish their patriotism + brainpower would do the same for
the US Constitution. But those issues are getting plenty of ink elsewhere.

My concern is more personal and local: the NSA’s version of patriotism is
corroding Silicon Valley. Integrity of our products, creative freedom of
talented people, and trust with our users are the casualties. The dolphin
in the tuna net is us — our industry, our work, and the social fabric of
our community.

Product integrity is doomed when the NSA involves itself in the product
development process. The scope of NSAs activity here is unknowable. But
what I hear from founders and other investors — nevermind Reuters’
reporting about RSA Security, and SPIEGEL’s about backdoors in networking
products — is beyond my worst expectations. President Obama’s Review Group
on Intelligence learned enough about the matter to give it a prominent
place in their December 12 report. A key recommendation: “the US Government
should … not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken, or make vulnerable
generally available commercial software.” It’s incredible to me that this
needs to be said at all. That it was phrased as a recommendation by a panel
of professors and retired government officials rather than as an imperative
truth shouted by Silicon Valley itself is sad. Truthful products come from
the union of founders’ values and users’ needs. Letting NSA add “features”
strips integrity away; it creates deceitful, incoherent products. Our
ambition must be the opposite.

Inside our companies and research centers, talented minds are being
conscripted into surveillance. Think about the software developers who
wrote the code behind your email service. Or the team who built the guts of
a blogging service’s geo-location features. Not one of them chose to work
for the NSA. But their work has been co-opted, effectively turned into
surveillance tools. The freedom of talented people to work for whom they
choose, building what they choose, for the purpose they choose is being
deleted. This is another deep violation of our community’s social fabric.

All this leads back to trust. Billions of people let Silicon Valley into
their daily lives and they hug it close. They trust our products to find
information, to get work done, to talk to each other, to buy and sell
stuff, and to have fun. That trust is a decades-old endowment built up by
inventor-founders from Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore through to the present
day. The magic of compound growth works in our favor when trust is
accumulating. But now we are making trust withdrawals every day as people
around the world learn how the NSA has woven surveillance, search, and
seizure into and around our products. This is the painful flip side of
compound growth: the trust withdrawals compound too.

Silicon Valley’s promise to people is simple and compelling: “We’ll build a
bunch of things. Try our work; keep what you love, dump what you don’t
love. We’ll learn from it and build on the stuff that you like best.”
Sadly, the NSA undermines the promise at its foundation.

We do have options. Modify our user agreements to reinforce users’ property
rights and expectations of privacy in their data to address the so-called
“third-party doctrine.” Make architecture and encryption decisions that
defend against upstream surveillance at the backbone. Appeal objectionable
collection orders under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to the full Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the FISC Court of Review, and the
Supreme Court if necessary. Appeal National Security Letters (NSLs) in
Federal Court if you believe warrantless requests for information are toxic
to your values and your work. All of us — founders, CEOs, Boards, citizens
— are allowed to hold opinions about what is right and we can exercise our
rights and freedoms to act accordingly. God knows we take full advantage of
the rights and freedoms in the tax code; we should be at least as creative
and engaged when it comes to existential threats to our work.

Smart patriots of the NSA are struggling with a basic question: of all the
ways to get a critical job done, which ways line up with our founding
values? Unfortunately, their answer is deadly to Silicon Valley’s life’s
work. That is 100% unacceptable.


Sent from my Android phone with K-9 Mail. Please excuse my brevity.

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