America Goes to War With Itself Over Data Security

Protesters hold up pictures of U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin on Nov. 18 Photograph by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

I know a handful of well-connected, cynical security folks in Silicon Valley who continue to maintain pretty much the same take on Edward Snowden. They say they believe he was paid off by China or Russia to leak a series of security documents and change the tenor of U.S. political discourse.

Major security stories over the past couple of years have tended to center on China, in particular, hacking American companies to obtain intellectual property. Dozens of the biggest names in U.S. industry, from Google and Intel to DuPont, had been caught up in these tales, fueling anti-China fears. The situation got so bad that some U.S. companies were convinced that Chinese spies were physically infiltrating Silicon Valley startups to gain access to new technologies. For a change of pace, people would occasionally blame Russia, or folks in Eastern Europe with ties to Russian money.

Snowden changed this discussion in an instant, turning the gaze of the media, Washington, and Silicon Valley inward.

A flurry of stories over the past week portrays the U.S. government and the nation’s consumer Web heavyweights—Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo!—as full-on adversaries. How much of this is for show and how much is real remains to be seen. But we have the technology companies vowing to increase the levels of security and encryption on their internal systems in an attempt to prevent the National Security Agency from tapping communications lines and reading the traffic.

The NSA is now said to have peered into Microsoft’s Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger services at will. “These allegations are very disturbing,” Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, wrote to our colleagues at Bloomberg News. “If they are true these actions amount to hacking and seizure of private data and in our view are a breach of the protection guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.” Microsoft is now looking at ways to beef up its security and block the NSA’s prying eyes.

For those keeping score at home, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has started to compile a list of who is encrypting what among the major U.S. Web companies and service providers.

The growing tension between the government and these technology companies has started to undermine years of politicking and work. Earlier this year, Valley companies and U.S. corporations scattered elsewhere were starting to talk more about openly sharing information on hacks and other security incidents. The hope was that companies could help each other and the government protect against foreign attacks and strengthen the nation’s networks. Speaking openly about such issues now would be foolish for any company, as it would invite plenty of unwanted attention. For now, cooperation seems to be tabled.

Is Snowden a foreign spy? Did some clever intelligence agent plan this turn of events all along? Does a one-handed alien clapping on Mars make a sound if no one is around to hear it? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the government and technology companies now seem more antagonistic than ever and that a sense of distrust against the NSA pervades Silicon Valley. It’s a situation that the government seems to have brought on itself, and that should be truly unsettling to the public.

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