Data-Driven Tech Industry Is Shaken by Online Privacy Fears
By DAVID STREITFELD and QUENTIN HARDY
SAN FRANCISCO - The dreamers, brains and cranks who built the Internet hoped it would be a tool of liberation and knowledge. Last week, an altogether bleaker vision emerged with new revelations of how the United States government is using it as a monitoring and tracking device.
In Silicon Valley, a place not used to second-guessing the bright future it is eternally building, there was a palpable sense of dismay.
"Most of the people who developed the network are bothered by the way it is being misused," said Les Earnest, a retired Stanford computer scientist who built something that resembled Facebook nine years before the inventor of Facebook was born. "From the beginning we worried about governments getting control. Well, our government has finally found a way to tap in."
The technology world has always strived to keep Washington at a certain arm's length. Regulation would snuff out innovation, the entrepreneurs regularly cried. Bureaucrats should keep their hands off things they do not understand, which is just about everything we do out here.
So the first mystifying thing for some here is how the leading companies - including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple and Facebook - apparently made it easier for the National Security Agency to gain access to their data. Only Twitter seems to have declined.
The companies deny directly working with the government on the project, called Prism. But they have not been exactly eager to talk about how they are working indirectly and where they would draw the line.
Entrepreneurs around Silicon Valley are publicly urging more disclosure.
"The success of any Silicon Valley consumer company is based not only on the value their products bring to users but also on the level of trust they can establish," said Adriano Farano, co-founder of Watchup, which makes an iPad app that builds personalized newscasts. "What is at stake here is the credibility of our entire ecosystem."
It is an ecosystem that thrives on personal data. Prism, which collects e-mails, video, voice and stored data, among other forms of Internet information, was exposed at a moment when the very possibility of online privacy seemed to be in doubt.
New technologies like Google Glass are relentlessly pushing into territory that was out of reach until recently. From established behemoths to new start-ups, tech companies are bubbling with plans to collect the most intimate data and use it to sell things.
"We're pushing our government to protect us, and we're also busy putting more and more of our information out there for people to look at," said Christopher Clifton, a Purdue computer scientist who has done extensive work on methods of data collection that preserve privacy. "The fact that some of that data is indeed going to be looked at might be disturbing but it shouldn't be surprising."
Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency worker who disclosed on Sunday that he was the one who leaked government surveillance documents to The Guardian newspaper, ranks high among the disturbed. In an interview with the newspaper, he called the Internet "the most important invention in all of human history." But he said that he believed its value was being destroyed by unceasing surveillance.
"I don't see myself as a hero," he told the paper, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."
President Obama, trying to play down the uproar, said Prism targets only foreign nationals and that it was worth giving up a little privacy for more security.
"I think that's a dangerous statement," said Bob Taylor, a computer scientist who played a major role in the 1960s in formulating what would become the Internet. "The government should have told us it was doing this.
And that suggests the more fundamental problem: that we're not in control of our government."
For some tech luminaries with less than fond feelings for Washington, the disclosures about Prism had special force. This was personal.
Bob Metcalfe, the acclaimed inventor of the standard method of connecting computers in one location, wrote on Twitter that he was less worried about whatever the National Security Agency might be doing "than about how Obama Regime will use their data to suppress political opposition (e.g. me)."
But if Silicon Valley is alarmed about the ways that the personal data now coursing through every byway of the Internet can be misused, it has been a long time coming.
Even as the larger computer makers sold their systems to the government and start-ups of all sorts trafficked in personal information, the companies tried to keep clear of government rules that might cramp their vision - and their profits. They also proved adept at lobbying.
Threats by regulators like Christine Varney, the Internet specialist at the Federal Trade Commission, to impose greater oversight on how personal data was being used online resulted in the formation in 1998 of the Online Privacy Alliance. The industry coalition was credited with turning the debate in the industry's direction.
Its chief spokeswoman: Ms. Varney, who went through the Washington revolving door and emerged as a champion of industry.
In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley's attitude toward personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom. "You have zero privacy," he said. "Get over it."
Mr. McNealy is not retracting that comment, not quite; but like Mr. Metcalfe he is more worried about potential government abuse than he used to be.
"Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google?" he asked. "They're private entities. AT&T can't hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can." An outspoken critic of the California state government, and Mr. Brown, the governor, Mr. McNealy said his taxes are audited every year.
But arguing that computer makers have some role in creating a surveillance state, he said, "is like blaming gun manufacturers for violence, or a car manufacturer for drunk driving." The real problem, he said, is: "The scope creep of the government. I think it's great they're looking for the next terrorist. Then I wonder if they're going to arrest me, or snoop on me."
Microsoft has recently been casting itself as a champion of privacy - at least when Google is involved. Ray Ozzie, the former software chief at Microsoft, was one of those sounding the alarm late last week.
"I hope that people wake up, truly wake up, to what's happening to society, from both a big brother perspective and little brother perspective," Mr.
Ozzie said at a conference on Nantucket, according to The Boston Globe. But he did not address whatever Microsoft's role might have been with Prism.
Aaron Levie, the founder of Box.com, a popular file-sharing system, initially joked on Twitter that Prism was simply putting people's Gmail, Google, Facebook and Skype data all in one place. "The N.S.A. just beat out like 30 start-ups to this idea," he wrote.
That was funny, because it was true, but also because the interests of the government and Silicon Valley are not necessarily in conflict here.
"The most important issue here is transparency and our lack of visibility around how our data is being used," Mr. Levie said. "The government and the tech industry clearly will need to come together to create a better model for this."
In the meantime, some tech leaders have another idea: lie low. Gordon Eubanks, a valley entrepreneur for 30 years, can see both sides of the argument over privacy and security. Until it is resolved, he said, "I've just become really careful about what I put out there. I never put online anything about where I live, my family, my pets. I'm even careful about what I 'like.' "
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