The NSA and the Corrosion of Silicon Valley

Michael Dearing

December 30, 2013


I believe that 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 U.S. 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 NSA’s activity here is unknowable. But what I hear from founders and other investors — never mind 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 Dec. 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 geolocation 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? The NSA’s answer is deadly to Silicon Valley’s life’s work. That is 100 percent unacceptable.

Michael Dearing (@mcgd) is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and a consulting associate professor at Stanford University.