Following the recent revelations about global surveillance and Prism by leaker Edward Snowden, the mainstream media is finally seriously investigating the intimate and unhealthy links between tech firms and the US government. This New York Times story reveals some of those connections and why none of us should trust the privacy pledges given by Facebook, Google and their merry mates:
When Max Kelly, the chief security officer for Facebook, left the social media company in 2010, he did not go to Google, Twitter or a similar Silicon Valley concern. Instead the man who was responsible for protecting the personal information of Facebook’s more than one billion users from outside attacks went to work for another giant institution that manages and analyzes large pools of data: the National Security Agency.
Mr. Kelly’s move to the spy agency, which has not previously been reported, underscores the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans.
The only difference is that the N.S.A. does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.
The disclosure of the spy agency’s program called Prism, which is said to collect the e-mails and other Web activity of foreigners using major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, has prompted the companies to deny that the agency has direct access to their computers, even as they acknowledge complying with secret N.S.A. court orders for specific data.
Yet technology experts and former intelligence officials say the convergence between Silicon Valley and the N.S.A. and the rise of data mining — both as an industry and as a crucial intelligence tool — have created a more complex reality.
Silicon Valley has what the spy agency wants: vast amounts of private data and the most sophisticated software available to analyze it. The agency in turn is one of Silicon Valley’s largest customers for what is known as data analytics, one of the valley’s fastest-growing markets. To get their hands on the latest software technology to manipulate and take advantage of large volumes of data, United States intelligence agencies invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, award classified contracts and recruit technology experts like Mr. Kelly.
“We are all in these Big Data business models,” said Ray Wang, a technology analyst and chief executive of Constellation Research, based in San Francisco. “There are a lot of connections now because the data scientists and the folks who are building these systems have a lot of common interests.”
Although Silicon Valley has sold equipment to the N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies for a generation, the interests of the two began to converge in new ways in the last few years as advances in computer storage technology drastically reduced the costs of storing enormous amounts of data — at the same time that the value of the data for use in consumer marketing began to rise. “These worlds overlap,” said Philipp S. Krüger, chief executive of Explorist, an Internet start-up in New York.
The sums the N.S.A. spends in Silicon Valley are classified, as is the agency’s total budget, which independent analysts say is $8 billion to $10 billion a year.
Despite the companies’ assertions that they cooperate with the agency only when legally compelled, current and former industry officials say the companies sometimes secretly put together teams of in-house experts to find ways to cooperate more completely with the N.S.A. and to make their customers’ information more accessible to the agency. The companies do so, the officials say, because they want to control the process themselves. They are also under subtle but powerful pressure from the N.S.A. to make access easier.
Skype, the Internet-based calling service, began its own secret program, Project Chess, to explore the legal and technical issues in making Skype calls readily available to intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials, according to people briefed on the program who asked not to be named to avoid trouble with the intelligence agencies.
Project Chess, which has never been previously disclosed, was small, limited to fewer than a dozen people inside Skype, and was developed as the company had sometimes contentious talks with the government over legal issues, said one of the people briefed on the project. The project began about five years ago, before most of the company was sold by its parent, eBay, to outside investors in 2009. Microsoft acquired Skype in an $8.5 billion deal that was completed in October 2011.
A Skype executive denied last year in a blog post that recent changes in the way Skype operated were made at the behest of Microsoft to make snooping easier for law enforcement. It appears, however, that Skype figured out how to cooperate with the intelligence community before Microsoft took over the company, according to documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the N.S.A. One of the documents about the Prism program made public by Mr. Snowden says Skype joined Prism on Feb. 6, 2011.