Microsoft sues US government, shows the politics of innovation

201604-pexels-lockMicrosoft sued the U.S. Justice Department yesterday. The issue at play is whether the Justice Department can (a) force Microsoft to hand over data about its customers and (b) not tell the affected customers about it.

Interesting, right? If you have your own data on Microsoft’s servers, there’s a chance the Justice Department is forcing Microsoft to give that data to the government, and the law dictates that you’d never learn about it.

This case highlights some of the differences between keeping your data inside your own house, versus keeping it in some company’s cloud. (As an aside, whenever I think of “the cloud”, I think of Chris Watterston’s sticker: “There is no cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.” It kills me. Every time.)

Imagine the government secretly broke into your house, photocopied everything in your filing cabinet(s), and then left, making sure to cover up their tracks. You’d never know. Your data wouldn’t be so private any more. And that would be super, super illegal.

If the government wants something from you, it has to get a warrant. Then you’re screwed. But until that happens, what’s yours is yours. You don’t have to share it with anyone.

But when your data is in the cloud, the game changes. It’s not in your “house”. It’s in Microsoft’s “house”. And the way the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act was written (and later amended by the USA PATRIOT Act), because there’s a third party involved (Microsoft), the government can compel the third party to share your data, and further compel them to never tell you about it.

As you might imagine, this scenario isn’t good for Microsoft’s business. Data security is one of its promises to customers. Rampant, undisclosed government surveillance of that data strikes at the assumed security/privacy benefit.

This debate has surfaced time and time again since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed in 2001. Maybe the most conspicuous example was the argument over the NSA warrantless surveillance program. The point is, over the past 15 years, we’ve focused on the balance between privacy and security. This Microsoft court filing is the most recent instance.

It’s interesting how quickly technology innovation, generally, can become political. Silicon Valley has struggled with this issue for a while, with recent examples of Apple’s dispute with the FBI and Microsoft’s complaint against the Justice Department.

But the Valley is far from the only place you see these conflicts. I work in oil and gas. I can think of two instances in which technology and politics have interested visibly in recent years. First, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, you had debates about the safety of offshore technology versus its economic benefits. Second, with shale oil and gas production, you had debates about the safety of fracking technology versus its economic benefits.

In oil and gas, when you think of the politics of technology, you’re often thinking of economics versus safety or environmental concerns. In Silicon Valley, you’re thinking of privacy versus security. The terms and stakes of the debates are different. But in both cases, you have a new technology which has transformed the interests of an important stakeholder (the government).

This scenario highlights one of the many differences between STEM in the academic world versus the business world. In academia, you can work on the most interesting technical challenges. Yes, you need funding. That limits your options to some extent. But you’re free to pursue questions that have strictly intellectual merit.

In industry, you have a ton of stakeholders, whose interests don’t always align. The best management teams deftly navigate these inter-stakeholder tensions.

As a STEM professional, it pays to be aware of how all stakeholders will respond to a new technology. Anticipating political risks can help you position the technology advantageously. The government is an often overlooked stakeholder, when you excitedly march down the path of disruptive innovation. Beware the complications. It’s much, much easier to mitigate those risks in advance, than to be surprised after the fact.


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