Encryption and Cyber Security Concerns as Tech Leaders Beseech Trump

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

December 2, 2016

Having backed the wrong horse in the recently concluded US presidential election, leaders of the tech industry, headed by behemoths Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo, have moved swiftly to heal the wounds they opened during the contentious campaign. They have penned a detailed ten-page letter (.pdf), focusing on a wish-list of requests that had hoped to be presenting to Hilary Clinton. Instead, they’re pitching the petitions to President-elect Trump.

The moguls have much work to do in reaching common ground with him, especially on front-burner issues such as government surveillance, strong encryption, and an immigration policy that is friendly to the highly skilled foreign workers they prize so highly. Dubbing a potential Trump presidency as a “disaster for innovation” back in June, more than 100 tech executives stridently warned that he would be opposed to a free exchange of ideas.

Now these same tech titans find themselves in the uncomfortable and, for many, the unprecedented position of eating a generous portion of humble pie.

The President-elect’s rhetoric, directed at the tech industry on the stump, was certainly unsettling. But with their letter, they hope to appeal to the billionaire’s highly regarded business sense, and celebrated affinity for compromise and deal-making, in order to soften his stance on the hot-button issues that are critical to them. The tech giants aren’t just pleading their case in self-interest. They feel they have a compelling economic message to support their pleas.

Because the tech sector is a crucial part of economic growth, responsible for 6% of the US economy and nearly $1 trillion in GDP in 2014, they argue that no laws should be enacted, or policies put in place, that could jeopardize this economic engine. It is the industry’s hope that the differences expressed by candidate Trump on the campaign trail can be ironed out.

It is not often that the $2.9 trillion sector, known for its innovation and far-sightedness, is caught off guard. But the industry shamed and shunned Trump, as it was certain of a Clinton victory. According to Deven Parekh, managing director at Insight Venture Partners,

Most of the planning (by tech companies) had been done under the assumption that Hillary would win. There was a big transition team for her ready to go, which included technology-related issues.

Now, Silicon Valley is faced with a blank slate in a Trump administration, as he doesn’t have a tech industry representative on his transition team. Or a tech strategy.

To the tech leaders, Trump’s populist message of restrictive immigration, manufacturing in America (which means higher production costs to tech companies), privacy, and a hard-line stance on trade agreements (which could make tech products more expensive in foreign markets) is of paramount concern. Add to this list Trump’s call to weaken encryption and cyber security, and the industry’s paranoia over his presidency seems well-founded. There are some reasons to be hopeful, however.

One, of course, is that it would be counterproductive to punish an industry that is an integral economic engine to the US economy, and is likely to be more so in the future. Also, Trump’s views on reduced taxation and regulation could benefit an industry with which he is unfamiliar. Then, there is overlap between Silicon Valley and Trump’s transition team, with its ties to real estate, venture funding, and other businesses.

It is hoped, too, that PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, an outlier among techies, and a man who supported Trump vociferously and financially from the start (and has his ear), might be a voice of reason and a connector to the tech giants.

So the question is, which Trump will govern? Will it be the enemy of strong encryption and privacy who conducted a war of words with Apple over its refusal to comply with a government demand that the tech company break into an iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook?

Trump, you may remember, called for a boycott of Apple for its refusal to cooperate. Or, was this just campaign talk – promises and posturing for which politicians are famous – that will be followed by the implementation of reasonable policies? Maybe, as in Trump’s best-selling book, The Art of the Deal, it is just a negotiating tactic.

Whether or not the NSA and other spy agencies are unleashed, and privacy comes under assault as a result of a Trump presidency, really comes down to the question of which Trump shows up in the Oval office in January. Will the occupant of the White House be the politician who pandered to the right, or the pragmatist who built a fortune on common sense and compromise? Civil libertarians everywhere will be interested to see how it plays out.

Editor’s note: This is a pure opinion piece by Stan, whose views should not be regarded as reflecting those of the rest of the BestVPN staff.

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