U.S. Reaping Results of a Poisoned Relationship With IT Industry
Unfortunately for the government, the variety of heavy-handed demands and actions with dubious legal standing have alienated the tech industry and, perhaps more important, the culture of the people who work in that industry. What's worse is there's really not a lot that the government can do if the tech industry's leadership decides not to cooperate. Sure, the government can take companies to court, as the FBI took Apple to court in an attempt to force the company to breach the security features of its smartphones. It wasted a lot of time in federal court that could have been spent finding its own solution. Apple still hasn't unlocked anything and the FBI had to pay millions of dollars to another company to get into the device. Likewise, the government—in the form of the Justice Department—can sue Microsoft for its refusal to provide the DoJ information it is prohibited from providing under European law. You can see how well that's working, too. The fight eventually will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, and so far Congress appears to be taking Microsoft's side. What's equally unfortunate is that the government actually needs the tech industry. In fact, the intelligence community has a quasi-private company called In-Q-Tel that exists to invest in companies with technology the government wants to encourage. The idea is to get early access to breakthrough technology so the government, especially the intelligence community, can get it first.When looking at the current set of impasses between the government and the IT industry, it's important for the government to remember where today's tech industry came from. The people running the big tech companies of today were the disruptive forces that brought computing to everyday people. These were the engineers who wrested control of the data center from the hands of mainframe operators and gave it to those who would put a computer into the hands of every employee and private person. The government shouldn't expect the IT industry to quietly accede to the government's demands when these companies believe that the government has failed to follow its own laws and the U.S. Constitution. The government—at both the agency level and within the Obama administration—needs to realize it needs the help of the tech industry badly. But having lost the industry's confidence, the government must understand it will get no cooperation that doesn't follow the letter of the law.
But companies don't need to accept investments from In-Q-Tel and they don't need to provide technology to the government at all if their executives don't want to. If the government tries too hard to force the industry to accede to its wishes, the tech industry can do as Microsoft did earlier this year, which is to move some critical operations offshore. That way those operations are beyond the reach of the federal government.