How Silicon Valley turned on President Obama

It wasn't so long ago that they were pals...The Week – by

In the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Silicon Valley was squarely in President Obama’s corner.

Google’s executive chairman coached Obama’s campaign team; executives from Craigslist, Napster, and Linkedin helped him fundraise; and when the dust settled, Obama had won nine counties in the liberal and tech-heavy Bay Area, scoring 84 percent of the vote in San Francisco. But a little over a year later, following explosive allegations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government is exploiting tech companies to spy on Americans, some members of Silicon Valley are taking a new perspective: “F— these guys.”  

That’s what Brandon Downey, a security engineer with Google, wrote late last month, upon learning that the NSA had broken into Google and Yahoo and was exploiting the data of millions of users, allegedly without the companies’ knowledge. He added, “We suspected this was happening, [but] it still makes me terribly sad. It makes me sad because I believe in America…The U.S. has to be better than this.”

Executives at Google, which issued a polite denial when the first revelations about PRISM came out, were publicly furious over the new revelations (which the NSA denied): “We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, told The Verge. This is the same company that in October 2012 gave $342,409 to Democrats and only $37,250 to Republicans, according to data from OpenSecrets.

Many techies may be regretting such investments. “There’s a strong libertarian streak that dampens support for the Obama administration… Entrepreneurs don’t like the government telling them what they can or can’t do with their bodies or their wallets,” says Craig Montuori, a Caltech aerospace engineer who designed data systems for the Chris Christie campaign in 2009 and worked in the field for Obama in 2012.

“I personally donated to the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012, and given the recent revelations, I would certainly reconsider doing the same in the future,” Sina Khanifar, a programmer and activist who helped launch, a coalition demanding more information about NSA surveillance efforts. “One of the biggest advantages the Obama campaign had in the last election cycle was the technical team that wrote their grassroots organizing software. The NSA revelations have seriously damaged technologists’ trust in government, and I think recruiting a similar team for the next elections would be much more difficult.”

Jonathan Nelson, who has been programming since he was seven, is the founder of Hackers and Founders, which assists tech startup entrepreneurs, and has 11,000 members working out of Silicon Valley. He tells The Week, “Our hopes were that the Obama administration would hold true to their promises and end these [surveillance] programs. But instead, they’ve expanded to unimaginable levels. That’s been crushingly disappointing for many in our community.”

Nelson notes, however, that the different factions of the tech industry have responded in various ways. He points to “Massive Tech Co” — companies with thousands of employees — which he believes are less inclined to speak publicly against the administration because they have government contracts and established policy interests.

Spokespeople for the big-name tech companies wouldn’t comment on the record for this article, but they’ve nonetheless taken covert action to protect user privacy. Microsoft, for instance, signed on with Apple, Google, and other companies to voice support for full-fledged NSA reform. “Companies are beginning to realize that…the NSA is actively hacking and targeting [them], putting all of us at risk,” says Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst and legislative assistant for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Twitter was notably absent from Snowden’s revelations about the PRISM program. But the company’s latest lobbying disclosure form reveals that Twitter is lobbying on a host of civil liberties bills related to stopping NSA surveillance — though we don’t know for sure on which side the company is lobbying — including a bill that would stop the government from scooping up geolocation data; a bill that would require more transparency in the FISA court; and a sweeping bill that reforms the Patriot Act.

Twitter also noted in a November 4 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the company went public last week) that “if our security measures are breached… our products and services may be perceived as not being secure [and] our business and operating results could be harmed.”

Nelson says that after Massive Tech Co., there’s venture capital-funded startups, which rely on third party servers that belong to companies like Amazon or Rackspace to guarantee the integrity of their data. “Once people around the world start to not trust [the] startups that they are using, and they start using other services… this could kill hundreds if not thousands of companies,” he says. And beneath that, there’s the “alpha geeks” — people in Silicon Valley working for small companies that are taking steps like “moving away from hosted email.”

Not all techies are blaming Obama for the NSA scandal. Montuori, who worked for the Obama campaign in 2012, says, “I still approve of [Obama] and support him as president. But the system at a whole is to blame, with the NSA pushing increased legislative authorizations and with a wink and a nudge exceeding even those bounds.”

Whether the scandal will affect Democrats’ relationship with Silicon Valley come 2016 remains to be seen. One high-level tech executive told The Week, “I really have no idea what’s going to happen… but I am curious what candidate Hillary’s opinions on the spying are. Does she agree or disagree with the views of Obama?”

Dana Liebelson is a reporter for Mother Jones. She speaks Mandarin and German and plays violin in the D.C.-based Indie rock band Bellflur.

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