`With Edward Snowden on the run in Russia and reportedly threatening to unveil the entire “blueprint” for National Security Agency surveillance, there’s probably as much terror in Silicon Valley as in Washington about what he might expose. The reaction so far from private industry about the part it has played in helping the government spy on Americans has ranged from outraged denial to total silence. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, he of the teen-nerd hoodie, said he’d never even heard of the kind of data-mining that the NSA leaker described—then fell quiet. Google cofounder Larry Page declared almost exactly the same thing; then he shut up, too. Especially for the libertarian geniuses of Silicon Valley, who take pride in their distance (both physically and philosophically) from Washington, the image-curdling idea that they might be secretly in bed with government spooks induced an even greater reluctance to talk, perhaps, than the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which conveniently forbids executives from revealing government requests for information.
But the sounds of silence from the tech and telecom sectors are drowning out a larger truth, one that some of Snowden’s documents might well supply in much greater detail. For nearly 20 years, many of these companies—indeed most of America’s biggest corporate sectors, from energy to finance to telecom to computers—have been doing the intelligence community’s bidding, as America’s spy and homeland-security agencies have bored their way into the nation’s privately run digital and electronic infrastructure. Sometimes this has happened after initial resistance, and occasionally under penalty of law, but more often with willing and even eager cooperation. Indeed, the private tech sector effectively built the NSA’s surveillance system, and got rich doing it.
Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA, says, “Generally as the IT community matured in this country, a number of things happened. They all opened Washington offices … and they came to an understanding, after some initial arrogance, that they needed to deal with the government.” The companies also came to understand that, in a very real way, they were now part of the nation’s infrastructure, and they would need plenty of help from the government in securing it.
So for the tech and telecommunications industries, the relationship has always been a delicate balance of patriotism and public image, and a public-relations tightrope walk between getting along and appearing not to bend to the NSA’s demands. “They have been, on the whole, cooperative,” says Greg Garcia, who served as the Homeland Security Department’s first Internet czar under President George W. Bush. “But at the same time, they are wary of being seen as instruments of the government.”
That wariness continues. The tech companies appear to understand that by keeping the whole process of cooperation supersecret, they have jeopardized their reputations, and possibly violated the law. After the first stories about the NSA’s “Prism” Internet surveillance program came out in The Guardian and The Washington Post in June, identifying some of the most recognizable names in American corporate culture—Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and AOL, among others—as having negotiated arrangements with government surveillance agencies, executives at some of these tech companies expressed surprise at the extent of the program. But on July 18, these same companies—among many others, including Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr—sent a letter to President Obama and senior intelligence and oversight officials in the executive branch and Congress asking permission to make public the number of government requests for information about their users, as well as the number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information is requested.