Last week marked the one-year anniversary of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden‘s epic revelations of the existence of numerous global surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA), the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) and the cooperation of U.S. tech companies.
While the U.S. technology industry now seems desperate to try to reign in spying programs after the retaliatory blowback of losing huge amounts of foreign commercial and government business, top venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is standing alone in calling Edward Snowden a “traitor” for leaking government secrets.
Andreessen is the Chairman of Andreessen Horowitz, a founder of Netscape who sits on the Boards of Directors of Facebook, eBay and Hewlett-Packard. He has been blasting the Obama Administration failure to do more to counter the Snowden leaks.
“Obviously he’s a traitor….He stole national security secrets and gave them to everybody on the planet,” Andreessen said, speaking on CNBC this week. Andreessen echoed earlier statements in which he said he wasn’t surprised by the NSA spying. “I just thought that’s what they were doing,” he added. “I thought everybody knew that.”
Andreessen conceded his view of Snowden isn’t shared by many in Silicon Valley. At the same time, he accused President Barack Obama of having “no plan…no strategy” for dealing with the leaks.
“The Snowden reveals just keep coming out. The Administration is just letting the NSA hang out to dry. I think they’re letting the American tech industry hang out to dry.” Andreessen added that the revelations have “very serious and very worrying” implications for the ability of U.S. tech companies to sell their products overseas. He said foreign governments may use the leaks as an excuse to impose trade barriers against U.S. tech products.
Top executives at Google, Facebook and other leading Internet companies have recently voiced outrage over details of the NSA programs revealed by Snowden leaks, including U.S. government efforts to weaken encryption and intercept transmissions between the companies’ overseas data centers. This week, Google’s Larry Page, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and seven other top CEOs published a signed open letter in several newspapers, urging the U.S. Senate to adopt tougher reforms than those contained in the so-called USA Freedom Act (H.R.3361) passed by the House of Representatives in May. The letter said that while the companies have beefed up security to guard users’ data, “the government needs to do more.”
But Andreessen’s boisterous criticism of Snowden may make him the only honest tech leader in Silicon Valley, because the industry still is maintaining a lucrative relationship facilitating NSA spying, according to the Associated Press. AT&T charges $325 for each NSA activation fee and $10 a day to monitor the account, and Verizon charges NSA $775 per tapping for the first month and then $500 a month thereafter. In a separate report, the Washington Post reported that NSA pays the telecom firms roughly $300 million annually for access to information on their customers.
Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and Google have refused to say how much they have charged the government for help tapping into emails and other non-telephonic communications. Those same companies now are complaining that the NSA revelations will harm their business, which depends on users trusting them with often-sensitive information.
The leaks are already having an economic impact, said Dean Garfield of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents many of the companies, in testimony on June 5th at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who chairs the Committee has previously defended the NSA. But Feinstein said she is now open to tightening language in the House bill that tech companies and civil liberties groups have described as still providing a potential loophole for continued bulk collection of Internet user data.
Even if CEOs are economically conflicted regarding Snowden, many engineers from the industry see Snowden’s actions as heroic. He was warmly received by an audience of tech professionals when he spoke, by video connection from Moscow, at the South by Southwest conference in Austin earlier this year. They applauded when Snowden’s attorney read a message from internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote that Snowden’s leaks were “profoundly in the public interest.”
Andreessen’s CNBC comments immediately drew a firestorm on Twitter, where Andreessen serves as a Board member. Later in the day, Andreessen replied in a series of posts that he has “long supported strong encryption.” When asked by Dan Gillmor, a longtime tech writer and academic, if he was bothered by the NSA hacking into U.S. companies’ networks, Andreessen responded by tweeting: “That part doesn’t thrill me.” He later wrote that although most of the programs are justified because they are focused on foreign targets, “I’m not saying surveillance of U.S. citizens is right.”
The tech firms were “all-in” with Obama Administration when the federal government was paying “big-bucks” for help with NSA spying, as long as the activity was kept secret from the American people. Now that Snowden has outed virtually the entire industry’s partnership with the NSA, Andreessen should be respected for not trying to be politically correct.