Silicon Valley And The Intelligence Agencies

PRISM and the NSA whistleblower scandal have been sparking public discussion of collaboration between tech giants and intelligence agencies–here’s a brief primer to the long history of what happens when spooks go to the Valley.

Silicon Valley And The Intelligence Agencies

The ongoing NSA surveillance leak raised questions about the relationship between major tech firms such as Google, Yahoo, Apple, Dell, and Facebook with the National Security Agency and America’s security apparatus. But even before Edward Snowden contacted Glenn Greenwald with a potential scoop, Silicon Valley’s biggest players all entered into relationships of one sort or another with the NSA. A cat’s cradle of ties exists between American tech firms and intelligence agencies–and these ties appear to be a mix of self-interest and patriotic duty. Here’s a look at just a few of the connections:


Google And The Intelligence Establishment–Data Is Data Is Data

Google’s famous motto is “Don’t be evil.” But Google is a massively powerful global corporation operating in a real world that’s considerably more ambiguous than grad school dormitory utopias. Over the past 15-odd years, Google has co-existed with the NSA, the CIA, and a host of intelligence agencies in a number of friendly and antagonistic ways.

The crucial thing to remember is that both Google and intelligence agencies deal in the same currency: information. Google Maps is the sort of spy tool that all sides involved in World War II would have killed for, and the information queries of a single Google search exceed everything the CIA or NSA had at their disposal during the Cold War. Although Google’s continued goodwill from the market demands a friendly public face, the fact remains that all of the company’s efforts–from Google Now to the alleged purchase of Waze–are driven by a desire to turn information into profit.

As a company, Google has a host of contracts with intelligence agencies, the military, and influential government contractors. This occurs for a very simple reason. Government contracts are a dependable and easy way of making a ton of money in the enterprise sector. But at the same time, this also requires Google to be involved in the seedy world of acquiring government contracts. Maintaining good working terms with the federal government–in all of its manifestations–is smart business sense for Google, since the company has very few exclusive products to market and competitors in any sector. If some of their civilian customers view this as a violation of “Don’t be evil,” well.. the civilian customers aren’t the ones paying Google’s bills.

Apart from Google’s intelligence agency contacts in the business sector, Mountain View reportedly collaborates with the CIA and NSA on cybersecurity cases which endanger national security. But sometimes, Google and the CIA invest in the same companies as well.

In 2010, In-q-tel, the CIA’s investment capital arm (named for “Q” in the James Bond movies), invested alongside Google in Massachusetts-based Recorded Future. The small startup creates software that scours the publicly available web–including Twitter feeds, personal web pages, and mass media–and mines data that can then be searched for patterns which predict upcoming events in real life.

It’s not too hard to see why both Google and the CIA would both have interests in a technology like that.


Facebook: Monitoring Americans More Than Any Intelligence Agency Ever Could

Back in 2011, satirical newspaper The Onion ran a piece entitled CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs. The fake story told a much larger truth. Users on Facebook post all sorts of information voluntarily, which is then mined by Facebook, advertisers, and (yes) the government. Any information Facebook users make publicly available can easily be datamined by intelligence agencies including the FBI, CIA, and NSA, who can purchase aggregate Facebook social data on the open market–which gives a convenient way of working around laws which prohibit domestic spying. But, to be fair, anyone with the cash can purchase a steady stream of Facebook user data through providers including Acxiom, BlueKai, Datalogix, Epsilon, and many others. Although this data is anonymized, it contains enough raw information on users to easily suss out the real identities of Internet users through a Big Data platform.

Facebook users voluntarily give up their personal information in an open trade-off. In exchange for letting advertisers (and the government) know about their physical location, friend networks, religious views, social interests, opinions of coworkers, and more, Facebook users gain access to a network which allows them to easily connect with their friends all over the world and share photos and life experiences with them. For many Facebook users, it’s a trade-off worth making, although many users seem unaware of just how much of their personal information is accessible to outside purchasers.

America’s intelligence community also has more formal connections to Facebook. Palantir, the secretive Recorded Future-like data analysis firm which counts intelligence agencies as primary customers alongside hedge funds and Fortune 500 corporations, was cofounded by tech legend Peter Thiel, who also sits on Facebook’s board. Facebook, like Google, has also cooperated with American law enforcement in the past. But while Facebook’s on-paper ties to the intelligence community are less extensive than Google’s, they also create an ongoing firehose of data that intelligence agencies (which, it must be noted, doesn’t only include American intelligence agencies) can easily access.

Microsoft And The Intelligence Agencies: Co-existence Of Necessity

In 2009, NSA Information Assurance Director Richard Shaeffer let a Senate subcommittee in on a very interesting fact: The NSA “enhanced” Windows 7. “Working in partnership with Microsoft and elements of the Department of Defense, NSA leveraged our unique expertise and operational knowledge of system threats and vulnerabilities to enhance Microsoft’s operating system security guide without constraining the user’s ability to perform their everyday tasks,” Shaeffer said.

Even before the NSA said on the public record that they modified the inner workings of Windows 7, rumors of intelligence agency cooperation had dogged Microsoft for years. Way back in 1999, security researcher Andrew D. Fernandes of Cryptonym found a security variable named _NSAKEY in Windows NT 4 Service Pack 5 and immediately caused a storm in the computer security world. The security variable, which was related to encryption, never had its purpose fully explained to the satisfaction of advocacy groups such as EPIC. There has also been rich discussion of possible backdoors in Windows provided by Microsoft’s behalf for intelligence agencies, many of which have been well-discussed on Quora.

Much like Google, Microsoft is also a massive vendor of government software products. This requires Microsoft to be on good relations with most sections of the government, because government contracts are insanely lucrative–and can easily be lost if there’s a more cooperative competing vendor.


However, Microsoft is also directly involved in the intelligence game as a software vendor. Last year, Microsoft and the New York Police Department teamed up to launch the Domain Awareness System, a massive CCTV control system and threat detection system. Originally created for the NYPD and outside stakeholders such as the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs to monitor Manhattan for terrorist activity and criminal threats in real time, the software is being marketed by Microsoft to other cities and private consumers. In a genius move, New York’s city government is also collecting royalties on the sale of the Domain Awareness System.

The Takeaway

Although the Internet is full of conspiracy speculation about nefarious ties between the NSA and Silicon Valley, the truth is considerably more boring. Technology companies exist in the same ecosystem as America’s intelligence agencies thanks to their dual roles as vendors of government software and information brokers. Because both intelligence agencies and tech firms deal in the same currency–information–it’s inevitable that representatives of the two frequently cross paths. Although Facebook, Google, and Microsoft were used as case studies above, similar situations exist for most large Silicon Valley companies. As to the rumored secrets about all those software backdoors or undisclosed citizen surveillance programs? Edward Snowden taught us that they’re just one leaker or FOIA request away.

[Image: Flickr user Sugree]