Is Silicon Valley Built on Spying?

Co-authored by Dr. Stephen Bryen, CEO, Ziklag Systems

People are angry these days that the U.S. government is spying. Somehow they think this is wrong, that it violates our laws, and should be stopped. But the reality is that all governments everywhere spy. And all of them have been helped in the spying business by Silicon Valley. In fact, not only did Silicon Valley create the platforms that are ideal for spying, sell access to their products' secrets to the U.S. government (and we don't know about foreign governments), but now they have gone into the spy business themselves. So don't listen to the crocodile tears you may see coming from some of the Silicon-Valley techno giants. They have been taking money from the government for years, as have their friends at the telephone and wireless companies. And now they have figured out how to turn the vulnerabilities of the products they have built into revenue machines. Many of them have been so wildly successful, such as Yahoo and Google, that the "good news" is spreading. Even the average person now can buy pretty good spyware they can stick on the smartphones of their family, friends, colleagues and competitors.

If an Internet company puts a "cookie" on your computer that tracks the web sites you visit, do you think that is spying? If a company logs the time and place when you go to a movie, or shop at a store, do you think that is spying? If a Silicon Valley company "scans" your email and extracts "key words," is that spying? Do any of them care about your privacy or your security? Of course not.

That's because all the spying that is taking place, and it is truly massive, is valuable. Really valuable.

Consider this. I send an email to my brother and say I need a new car, because my old one is a piece of junk, and I really like the Toyota Prius. Next thing you know, the local Toyota dealer gives me a call. How did he know I was looking for a car, how did he know my car was just about extinct, and how did he know I had a soft spot for a Prius? The truth is that he knew because he got the information from one of those email "scans."

Or consider this. I really don't like Romney but I don't want to vote for Obama because I think he is too young. I send a bunch of text messages to my friend exchanging views on this subject. And then I get a message from Obama saying that, yes I am young, but that's where new ideas come from. Happenstance? Hardly.

To make it even easier, the WEB and the smartphone have ginned up a bunch of attractive "social media" sites where you end up putting information that you think you are only sharing with those in your "circle." But the "circle" is a lot wider than you think.

Almost everything that has been built by Silicon Valley is based on the notion of an "open platform." An "open platform" is a codeword for making large parts of the "source code" on how something works available to the world. It makes programmers happy because they can manipulate the source code either for good -- to make a useful program or APP, or for bad, to put a bug on your personal computer or smartphone. When you think about it, your personal computer is anything but personal. It should be called a PIR --a personal information repository. And the smartphone is also misnamed, because it certainly is not smart about security. Maybe it should be called a BRP (a Big Risk Phone).

If you have any doubts consider this. The new nominee for head of the National Security Agency is Vice Admiral Michael S. Rogers. He is currently head of the Navy's Cyberfleet Command which aims to safeguard Navy computers. The mission of the command is, in their own words, "to serve as central operational authority for networks, cryptologic/signals intelligence, information operations, cyber, electronic warfare, and space capabilities in support of forces afloat and ashore; to direct Navy cyberspace operations globally to deter and defeat aggression and to ensure freedom of action to achieve military objectives in and through cyberspace..." Admiral Rogers is supposed to "help" the president institute new safeguards inside the National Security Agency. But before he is confirmed, he has to explain why it was that some Iranians (if indeed they were just that) were able to hack his Navy computer system so well that his team of cybernauts couldn't clean them out for six months at least.

One of the reasons our security is at risk is because of the open platform mentality. The U.S. government has been trying, at least officially since 1988 when the first Computer Security Act went into law, to safeguard critical computers. They have already spent billions on various security efforts. And while inadvertently the government has created lots of employment in the security space, they have failed completely at making government computers secure. We are almost at the point, and maybe we have passed it, where it is a certainty that no computer is secure, no network is safe, and no smartphone can be trusted.

Some think that Silicon Valley has an answer. One group offering encrypted communications is saying that they have the right approach because they won't cooperate with the U.S. government. But if everything going on in Silicon Valley these days is a profit center where personal privacy is something to be exploited, why is this industry better than the government? In fact, the government has safeguards and standards and has vowed to improve them, which is partly what Vice Admiral Rogers will try to do if he is confirmed for the NSA job. All government officials are sworn to uphold the Constitution and defend the United States.

Silicon Valley's standard is money and profit. It doesn't defend anyone.