Forget the guilt of having built the technology that allows the government to spy on its citizens' private lives more than ever before — the biggest concern out of Silicon Valley about the NSA mess is that all this bad press could be bad news for the bottom line, so the entrepreneurs are all ganging up on Washington. The immediate (and very similar) statements from the nine major tech companies implicated in the PRISM data-mining leak all insist that they have a vast interest in protecting your data. Which is true, except that most of them also make tons of money off protecting and then selling that valuable data to advertisers. And since the same goes for pretty much every other handful of nine names in Silicon Valley these days, the last thing the data-driven tech industry wants is for the privacy freakout of the year to freak everyone right out of handing over their every digital move. This shakes down all the way to the core.
In the wake of the revelations that companies aren't being so careful with all the data we give — 97 billion pieces of data were scraped by the NSA in one month, according to The Guardian — it appears that, after spending last week on apologies and denials, phase two of Silicon Valley's self-defense is all about blaming government overreach. "Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google?" Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, tells The New York Times's David Streitfeld and Quentin Hardy. "They're private entities. AT&T can't hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can." McNealy, known for his frank statements about privacy, wants to shift the focus elsewhere. Blaming tech companies, he says, "is like blaming gun manufacturers for violence, or a car manufacturer for drunk driving." Of course, Americans do fault gun companies and car companies when their safety is compromised by the products of those industries, but the real problem, McNealy says, is "the scope creep of the government."
Even the CEOs who have distanced themselves from PRISM have begun talking up more transparency from the government, not less data collection by tech companies. In addition to the statements from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page, both of which used some form of the word "transparency," Box CEO Aaron Levie took a similar stance. "The most important issue here is transparency and our lack of visibility around how our data is being used," he tells the Times. "The government and the tech industry clearly will need to come together to create a better model for this."
Here's what that careful messaging really means: We need to better manage all that data you give us. Silicon Valley, with the spying spotlight turned its way, would just as soon have you forget how much data it collects from you every moment. Because without that personal data trove and the human willingness to let companies have it, the entire economy of selling ads against your daily digital interests crumbles. "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," Adriano Farano, co-founder of Internet start-up Watchup, told the Times. "What is at stake here is the credibility of our entire ecosystem."
Yes, it sure would prove very hard to make all that money off rightfully fearful Americans who — for suddenly more good reason — suddenly decide not to wholesale give up more of their lives for free.