April 22, 2016

Surveillance camera

Surveillance camera in New York City. Credit: Jonathan McIntosh / Flickr Creative Commons

When you think of the government and Silicon Valley, you probably don’t picture a rosy or cosy relationship. Particularly when it comes to spying or conflict.

But according to Fred Kaplan, that wasn’t always the case:

“Up until quite recently, there’s been a complicity, a collusion, cooperation, call it what you will, between telecommunications industries and the government, including intelligence agencies. Going back a century, in the 1920s, there was an intelligence agency left over from World War I that persuaded Western Union to give it access to all telegraphs going in and out of the country.”

Kaplan is the author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War. And he says that this cooperation has been in place ever since the beginning of the digital age:

“When Microsoft submitted its first Windows Operating System for vetting in this manner, the NSA found 1500 points of vulnerability. The NSA then helped Microsoft patch them, [but] not all of them, so that when these Operating Systems were sold to foreign entities, the NSA knew where the backdoors were. And Microsoft had no problem with this.”

However, there are a lot of reasons this relationship, or at least the perception of it, has turned sour. There were the Snowden revelations, and - perhaps most importantly - the fact that in a global economy, there’s no reason that a company like Apple can’t simply move to another country. Western Union certainly couldn’t do that.

But this supposedly rocky relationship doesn’t mean that Silicon Valley can’t aid the government in fighting terrorism.

Facebook and Twitter are trying to identify ISIS recruiters and kick them off their platforms. (Though Kaplan points out that this isn’t just pure patriotism, it’s also good business not to let ISIS appear to be taking over your product.) And when politicians talk about getting Silicon Valley to 'disrupt' ISIS, there are ways that technology can assist.

Kaplan thinks a good example comes from back in 2007, when military forces in Iraq started capturing insurgents computers:

“They would get into the computers, linguists would analyze the speech, they would then send an email to a bunch of other insurgents, pretending to be one themselves, and say ‘let’s meet at such and such a place at 4 o’clock’, and when they met there, there waiting for them would be some US Special Operations forces.”

And, however much people might say that there’s an inordinate amount of bad blood between Silicon Valley and the defense community, Kaplan isn’t that pessimistic.

“I think the Apple-FBI case not withstanding - and I’m not saying that this is for the better or for the worse - I see over the next couple years, the same amount of, or even greater levels of cooperation. To the extent that terrorism remains a problem in particular, if there are more attacks on targets within the United States especially, and if Silicon Valley is called upon to help stave off this threat, it’s going to be very difficult for them to say no.”

Dark Territory, Culture, cyber war, Fred Kaplan

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