Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the governments domestic spying activities, including recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for answers.
But tech executives claim they have no choice but to comply. As Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer explained at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, its treason to disobey the NSA. It generally lands you incarcerated.
Those who think shes engaging in hyperbole need only look to the case of former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio.
Recently released from federal prison, Nacchio claims he was set up on insider trading charges when he rebuffed NSA attempts to access his customers records. A 2006 report in USA Today confirmed that Qwest was the lone holdout from the 2001 NSA program. Today, there are apparently no such holdouts: Leaked information on the current NSA PRISM program shows that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others turned over virtually all data on all their users to the NSA on demand.
CEOs are concerned about possible retribution for more than just non-compliance; the orders also carry a prohibition against companies even disclosing that a request was made.
Indeed, Nacchio explained that since he was charged with insider trading, rather than treason, he was barred from presenting evidence in his defense that non-compliance with the NSA lay behind his prosecution. Even had he been allowed to use such a defense, the information he requested to support his proposed defense was deemed classified. As Mayer put it, trying to explain why Yahoo cant protest NSAs spying on its users: We cant talk about it because it is classified.
That the government could impose a gag order on such prominent business leadersand that nearly every business leader so ordered would be intimidated into compliancewould have been unthinkable to earlier generations of American entrepreneurs, who viewed the government as a servant to be watched carefully, rather than the other way around.
Take the example of my father, the late Willard Garvey.
As Pulitzer Prize-winner Maura McEnaney recounts in the new book, Willard Garvey: An Epic Life, long before todays War on Terror, my father was a capitalist operating on the front lines of the Cold War: in Latin America, Asia, Africa.
Latin America from the 1950s into the 1970s teemed with Cold War intrigues, from the Marxist-Leninist guerilla Ché Guevara, to right-wing military juntas, CIA-assisted coups, and active pro-Cuban, pro-Soviet, and pro-Chinese factions jockeying for control. Despite this, my father pushed ahead with his plans to build low-cost homes for the nascent working- and middle-classes in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The same was true in India, Morocco, Thailand. Every Man a Homeowner, was his motto, Every Man a Capitalist.
Operating with local partners, and dealing only with the countries top leadership, my father became highly visible on the CIAs radar screen. As he later recalled, The CIA guy would come down and visit me after I got back from trips. I said, Im pleased to talk to you and I will tell you anything I know, but dont ever tell me anything that you dont want anybody in the world to know because if anyone ever asks me, Ill tell them.
Given todays draconian penalties for such an open mouth policy, is it surprising that tech titans are reluctant to publicly oppose their companies use as NSA agents?
Yet, many profess that they dont want to comply. Is something more at work?
Sure there is: business, contracts, money. Nacchio says he was warned that Qwests refusal to comply with warrantless wiretapping requests might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government, which came to pass.
Silicon Valleys cozy relationship with the government is deep-seated and mutually beneficial: from Oracles taking its name from a CIA contract, and Google Earths genesis as the CIA-funded Keyhole satellite mapping software, to ongoing, highly lucrative contracts for supplying the government with technologyso lucrative that Google sued to be able to bid against Microsoft for one 5-year contract.
So perhaps its less surprising that technology leaders present a united front in complying with government spying.
Google co-founder Larry Page offered this defense of NSA data-gathering on Googles blog: We understand that the U.S. and other governments need to take action to protect their citizens safetyincluding sometimes by using surveillance. Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison championed the practice on CBS: Its great. ... Its essential.
Its difficult to imagine that the government would or could prosecute all the CEOs of such influential firms if they all refused to cooperate with the governments wide net of data gathering.
Americans concerned about government overreach wont find champions among todays high tech leaders. What a far cry from earlier generations of individualist-entrepreneurs like my dad, Willard Garvey, who boldly declared, I wouldnt be co-opted or subservient to any government bureau at any level. Patriotism and government are two unrelated subjects.