What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

For more information, here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

Did you know Google Feud’s #1 response to the phrase, “My friend is addicted to ____” is  “phone.” But as technology continues to permeate our lives, a lot of tech companies would plug in “collecting your personal information” instead.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that she’s closeted her Alexa after getting a call from a vendor offering her a great price on tickets to a concert featuring country music superstar Brad Paisley.  This following a conversation among family members the day before about that very concert. They happened to be standing next to a kitchen counter where Alexa sat. Was she listening?  Who knows.

Alexa
Good deeds? Amazon’s Alexa will even donate to your favorite charity.

Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we Americans remain confused and oddly offended when we discover (if we discover) our information has been sold and used without our permission. There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively.

Succeeding and staying ahead is a struggle for any company, particularly small tech companies.  Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire  haunt us for days to come.

 

At the time, we jumped into the thick of it. It was an opportunistic, defensive strategy. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. In 2000, we joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  The offering would ask people to opt in, rather than automatically including them in invisible information gathering.  But we were never able to sell a product, and the company folded 18 months later.  We were small, but if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

We did all the right things in those early days, but we ultimately failed because customers expect companies to deliver value — innovation — first.  Privacy is generally an afterthought. Amazon, Facebook and Google knew this from the get-go.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.