Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama, standing with British Prime Minister David Cameron, said that “If we find evidence of a terrorist plot…and despite having a phone number, despite having a social media address or e-mail address, we can’t penetrate that; that’s a problem.” According to the Wall Street Journal, he then indicated that he believes Silicon Valley companies want to solve this problem, because “They’re patriots.”
An interesting statement, given that just a few months ago, Silicon Valley companies were being criticized by U.S. government agencies for adding automatic encryption to smart phones—a move the government sees as not so patriotic. The latest software released for Android and Apple phones and pads automatically encrypts user data, and the companies said they are not keeping a master key, so they can’t help the government get into user data, even if they want to. Other communications and social networking apps, like What’sApp, have also been rolling out automatic encryption.
So what’s the story? Is Silicon Valley determined to protect user privacy, or is it ready and willing to turn over data to the government when asked.
You could see it as a delicate dance, or as walking a fine line. Or, you could be a little more cynical, and view it through the eyes of the Dr. Seuss classic, The Sneetches.
I was introduced to this parable back in the ‘90s. The book is typically used to teach lessons about discrimination. But Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper had a different interpretation in mind when he gave a copy of the book to my husband. The intent, Draper noted, was to help my husband understand Microsoft’s moves at the time. Since then, The Sneetches has been a story that I think about regularly when I watch the goings on in business and technology today.
Short synoposis: two sets of creatures—star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches—live in a world in which the star-bellied Sneetches are top dogs. An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes in with new technology—he can add stars to plain-bellied Sneetches, for a fee. The plain-bellied crew all signs up, and now nobody can tell the two groups apart. The original elite aren’t happy, so McBean offers a new tech fix, at a higher fee: star removal. This goes back and forth until the Sneetches are broke—and McBean drives off with all the money. Only then do the two sides work out their differences.
So McBean provides the technology that gives and the technology that takes away—sort of like a tech industry that gives privacy protection, yet is, apparently also interested in working with the government to get around privacy protection.
You can see an animated version of the Sneetches here (or read the text here) and think about whether it’s a good or bad thing that Silicon Valley is in the position of brokering our privacy.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.