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 government was reported to be 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 striven 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 access 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 the 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 emails, 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 startups, 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 CIA worker who disclosed 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.
For some tech luminaries with less than fond feelings for Washington, the disclosures about Prism had special force. This was personal.
Bob Metcalfe, the legendary 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).”