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Relations between Silicon Valley and Washington have never been easy, but the technology sector’s fury about hacking by the National Security Agency has company executives talking about the U.S. government as its new adversary.
After reports in March that the NSA had masqueraded as a Facebook server to hack into an unknown number of computers, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg called President Obama to protest. He then vented his anger in a Facebook post, writing, “When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we are protecting you against criminals, not our own government.”
Technology companies and service providers vow they will not voluntarily share information with the government and are racing to encrypt more data. Revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have also derailed discussions about how business and government might work together to stop cybercrimes, says BusinessWeek.
For years, the tech sector wasn’t sure why it should sully itself with Washington. Google set up a single lobbyist in the capital as late as 2005. Nevertheless, in 2013, the tech sector was the fourth-largest spender on D.C. lobbying, a few million dollars behind the oil and gas industry.
There is still a lot we do not know about relations between the NSA and American companies, including how much personal data was voluntarily shared by the tech sector and the more accommodating telecommunications providers, and how much came from the NSA’s hacking into companies’ data. Allied governments and foreign companies believe the worst. On June 26, Germany announced it would not renew a contract with Verizon over concern that the company could not keep data from the U.S. government. Afraid of losing overseas markets, tech leaders have become increasingly vocal about their frustration and their intention to challenge Washington on every issue.
The government has to do the lion’s share of the work to restore even minimal trust. Much like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does with infectious diseases, a government-run central clearinghouse could spread the word about vulnerabilities and cyber-attacks. Only Washington can build the law enforcement networks capable of tracking cybercriminals globally, press for stronger intellectual property protections in trade agreements, negotiate treaties and international guidelines to constrain cyber-attacks, and appeal to other governments for help to stop them.