Ten years from now, Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance programs will be looked upon as 2013’s single most important event with respect to the information technology industry. At least that's the view expressed by Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMWare, who spoke at a panel on the “Silicon Valley State of the State” held last week on VMWare’s Palo Alto, California, campus.
The other Silicon Valley luminaries on the panel agreed—and are very worried about the lasting impacts of the revelations, which detailed numerous NSA programs for mining databases, monitoring social networks, and collecting images and other data from around the world.
Said Joseph Tucci, chairman and CEO of EMC: “The Snowden issue was a message to the world that trust has been breached. We don’t look good to anybody.”
“It’s a disaster,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “We’ve lost our moral standing.” How, he asked, does the U.S. stand up to China and others conducting cyber attacks against U.S. companies “and say ‘this is wrong, you can’t do this’ when the U.S. is being accused of doing exactly the same thing to those countries?”
And perhaps worse, said Hennessey, “There was a low level consultant that had access to everything in the NSA.” Going forward, “would YOU trust them?”
The disclosures will hurt U.S. tech companies for a long time, the executives agreed, because it will lead to a Balkanization of the Internet, that is, its division into separate and non-cooperative regions. Said Mark Andreessen, general partner in Andreessen Horowitz and co-founder of Netscape Communications. “Every country in the world looks at American model of the Internet—free flow of information, do whatever you want—and they look at the Chinese—the Great Firewall, with censorship and control and protectionism. Until now, the American model has been dominant, but a lot of countries, [including] the Putin administration, think the Chinese model looks pretty good.”
Until now, Andreessen said, these countries haven’t had a good excuse to make a shift from more freedom to more control. But now, he says, they can use the Snowden affair “as domestic political cover to impose controls on their own citizens. I think that is bad for American Internet businesses, bad for American economy, and certainly bad for the citizens of those countries”
And, added Joe Tucci, CEO of EMC, bad for innovation everywhere.
This crisis, though triggered by the Snowden revelations, wasn’t unexpected or unprecedented, pointed out FireEye CEO Dave Dewalt. Said Dewalt, “Every time a new domain gets discovered—whether new lands or oceans or space--we end up conflicting over that domain. The cyber domain is no different.”
The superpowers, he said,” are realizing that this domain is incredibly powerful and completely critical to the infrastructures of their countries.”
It turns out, Dewalt thinks, that the United States’ leadership in developing technology is making the country more rather than less vulnerable.
“All of our innovations created an Achilles heel,” he says. “This wonderful platform of technology coming out of Silicon Valley has made it a perfect platform to attack, because there’s not much security being built into the social networks, the mobile computing devices, or the cloud computing capabilities we have, so superpowers find it easy to target us.”
The U.S. government has to figure out how to balance security and transparency going forward, and it needs to figure this out fast, the executives agreed. So far, it’s not doing a very good job. The grade the panelists gave the U.S. effort to date: a D-minus at best. But they grudgingly admitted that the task is not easy.
The U.S. government, said Gelsinger, is going into uncharted territory. “Not only do they have to reestablish the position of the U.S. in the world, they have to decide policies by which to govern technology.”
The situation is growing urgent, Dewalt believes. "We’re elevating defcon levels step by step in a bad direction, with a tit for tat occurring that is pretty dangerous right now. We have to improve the [way we handle policy in the cyberdomain] dramatically, especially as Iran, Syria, and some of other Middle Eastern markets come online with much greater capability."
The next 12 to 24 months, Dewalt said, will be a defining period of mankind's [control over the cyberdomain]. And if we don’t solve some of these issues in this window, he said, “technology could really get hurt, and so could Silicon Valley.”
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.