The new Silicon Valley. Image: Wikimedia
Silicon Valley has a closer relationship to Big Government than most shining libertarian disruptopreneurs would care to admit—mostly because there's a heaping profit to be made from it. A front page story in the New York Times today makes crystal clear what many already knew: tech companies and their former employees are making a fortune off of government contracts.
The story focuses on Max Kelly, a cyber security expert who left a cushy post at Facebook for the NSA. There he put his expertise in protecting user data to good use—helping government snoops more efficiently collect it. His example, the Times says, is indicative of the blurred lines between the industry and government data collectors.
But it's just the tip of the iceberg. The NSA and other agencies are evidently paying a pretty penny for Silicon Valley's information-collection capacities, too:
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.
Beyond that, the NSA unabashedly goes to tech events to recruit new blood. Many sign up. A friend of Motherboard who recently attended a hacker conference in New York said that no one wanted to talk about the NSA because "most of the scene is industry now."
Likewise, Silicon Valley companies are open about the opportunities keeping our Big Bros as a satisfied customer presents. Ray Wang, a technology analyst and chief executive of Constellation Research, told the Times that “We are all in these Big Data business models. 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.”
So it looks like Silicon Valley has been busy "disrupting" that clunky old outdated domestic spying model where the NSA had to sit around collecting data all by themselves. All these new "connections" between tech firms and snoops—exciting! I wonder who will give the first TED talk on thinking outside the box about the most innovative ways to discreetly collect data from American citizens.
He warned us.
It looks a lot like we're witnessing the rise of the something we might call the Military-Information Complex (the term was floated before, in a different context, in a 1996 Wired piece). Like the military-industrial complex that rose up before it, we're watching the ascent of an opaque constellation of companies and government bureaus that stand to make loads of cash not by offering useful services to the public, but by negotiating massive contracts paid out of the nation's perpetually-ballooning defense budget.
Fitting, then, that one of these firms is actually named Constellation—it's just a cog in a vast network of entities that reside far outside the purview of the average American eye. There are undoubtedly many others. The Halliburton of the information age—a monolithic and many-tentacled, contract-dependent corporation—has likely already been born.
Thanks to whistleblowers, we already know that the NSA has dumped billions of taxpayer dollars on a system called Trailblazer that was eventually scrapped altogether. A trio of former NSA employees told the Nation that "the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), the government’s fourth-largest contractor, squandered billions of dollars on a vast data-mining scheme that never produced an iota of intelligence." The NSA opted instead to use contractors like Booz Allen to collect citizens' data.
So we know there's a vast amount of money and resources available for such nebulous private/public partnership spy efforts. The NSA's budget is confidential, but independent analysts estimate it's around $8-10 billion per annum. No one knows how big a slice of the pie Silicon Valley firms are getting, but with those kind of numbers, we can safely assume it's a lot. If these spying programs continue, it will only get bigger—remember, the Department of Defense is pretty much the only federal bureau that's never seriously in danger of losing its copious funding. The free market can't deter these deals, since Uncle Sam's the buyer, and no re-election-seeking politician wants to suggest shrinking funding for defense measures.
The fear is that as these government-sponsored data mining operations grow, we'll see the same phenomeon that abetted the likes of Halliburton, Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman and any number of other defense contractors that continue to profit off of the inexorable expansion of the military-industrial complex. Big Data.
Unlike those defense contractors, the spirit of such an arrangement seems to be in direct contradiction with the purported values of Silicon Valley. The credo always seemed to be that government should get out of the way and let the sparkling techno-infused minds use their most-modern tools to solve the most modern problems—and that regulators and sprawling agencies just mucked up the process and stood in the way of progress.
Yet as much as the entrepreneur 2.0 class rails against outmoded government bodies that hamper innovation, many sure seem happy to take cash from some of the largest and most secretive federal agencies out there. And if current trends prevail, they're likely to continue doing so well into our surveilled, data-mined future.