Max Levchin: Think the NSA's bad? Try growing up in the Soviet Union
As Edward Snowden continues to reveal details about the NSA's surveillance apparatus, many Americans are shocked and outraged at the extent to which the agency spied on US citizens. There were schemes to collect massive amounts of data from the country's biggest tech firms, sometimes with their knowledge, sometimes not; Internal audits revealed thousands of examples per year where the NSA overstepped its own rules; And perhaps most disturbingly, the agency participated in a secret campaign to undermine encryption standards and crack software.
But at tonight's PandoMonthly, Max Levchin, cofounder of PayPal and Yahoo board member, had a message to those critics: "For us to think that the largest budget in the defense structure of the United States, whose only charter is to spy, to not be spying by any means necessary is ridiculous."
This echoes the sentiment of another major Silicon Valley icon, Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen*. “I increasingly feel like we’re all on some gigantic collective fainting couch,”Andreessen tweeted. “Oh my WORD I can’t believe that spy agencies SPY.”
Part of Levchin's thinking comes from the fact that he grew up in the Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine. While he admits the abuses of power we've seen in the NSA are troubling, it's nothing compared to what transpired under Soviet rule.
"Having seen what an oppressive, nasty, occasionally evil regime like the Soviet one did with its secret services and its intelligence, that's bad. That stuff is just really evil. I lost a number of family members to the Stalin version of the secret police, or the 'NSA of the day.'"
"We have it pretty good in this country," he adds.
So does that mean Levchin is okay with the government reading his email? Naturally no, but lucky for him he has the tools and wherewithal to use stronger encryption than most users of the Internet. Even then, Levchin admits that his own strong crypto isn't unbreakable but "will not get broken as easily as all the rest." He adds that, hypothetically, the government could infect his computer with malware to access his data.
So Levchin is critical of NSA abuses. His gripe, however, is with people who call for the dismantling of the agency.
"When something really bad happens will you 'undismantle' it? Secret agencies spy on things so bad things don't happen."
Levchin's argument, though sound, speaks to the troubling, binary nature of how the NSA debate's been portrayed in the media and public forums. His stance, though he acts as if it's controversial, is not so different from many of the NSA's critics: He thinks we need security agencies watching out for us, but they are in clear need of reform and oversight. The trouble is, like Andreessen, he focuses on the most hysterical opponents of the NSA (the "dismantlers") to justify his argument. Or he highlights far more disturbing abuses by other countries.
Levchin's right: We shouldn't dismantle the NSA. But we shouldn't dismiss valid concerns about the agency because of a few loud, hysterical voices on Twitter, either.
*Marc Andreessen is a personal investor in Pando