Just down the road from Google’s main campus here, engineers for the company are accelerating what has become the newest arms race in modern technology: They are making it far more difficult — and far more expensive — for the US National Security Agency and the intelligence arms of other governments around the world to pierce their systems.
As fast as it can, Google is sealing up cracks in its systems that Edward J Snowden revealed the NSA had brilliantly exploited. It is encrypting more data as it moves among its servers and helping customers encode their own emails. Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo are taking similar steps.
After years of cooperating with the government, the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow. The strategy is also intended to preserve business overseas in places like Brazil and Germany that have threatened to entrust data only to local providers.
Google, for example, is laying its own fibre optic cable under the world’s oceans, a project that began as an effort to cut costs and extend its influence, but now has an added purpose: to assure that the company will have more control over the movement of its customer data.
The company also said it had to acquiesce to some governments’ requests for data to comply with national laws. Otherwise, it said, it faced losing its license to operate in certain countries.
Eric Grosse, Google’s security chief, suggested in an interview that the NSA’s own behaviour invited the new arms race. “I am willing to help on the purely defensive side of things,” he said, referring to Washington’s efforts to enlist Silicon Valley in cybersecurity efforts. “But signals intercept is totally off the table,” he said, referring to national intelligence gathering. “No hard feelings, but my job is to make their job hard.”
In Washington, officials acknowledge that covert programs are now far harder to execute because American technology companies, fearful of losing international business, are hardening their networks and saying no to requests for the kind of help they once quietly provided.
Robert S Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 17 American spy agencies, said that it was “an unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate legally and voluntarily” with American spy agencies.
In the past, he said, “we have been very successful” in getting that data. But he acknowledged that for now, those days are over, and he predicted that “sooner or later there will be some intelligence failure and people will wonder why the intelligence agencies were not able to protect the nation”. Companies respond that if that happens, it is the government’s own fault and that intelligence agencies, in their quest for broad data collection, have undermined web security for all.