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Silicon Valley feels the surveillance heat

Google co-founder Sergey Brin looks on during a news conference at Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, Calif.

There’s a lot of suspicion in Silicon Valley since the news of PRISM broke. Employees at the so-called PRISM companies are clearly on lock down. After the news broke, I staked out a Google shuttle bus stop in Berkeley.

I asked about a dozen Googlers, what’s the mood like at the office? Most of them avoided me like I had some disease. The ones who did talk? Well, it was basically, uh, no comment.

After striking out with the Googlers, I headed over to SOMA, San Francisco’s start-up district and found Ben Nelson, 24, standing in a long line in front of Sushirrito. It’s a take out joint that makes sushi burritos. He’s not too worried about PRISM.

“It’d be a bigger issue if we’d gone from perfect privacy to imperfect privacy,” Nelson, who’s an engineering intern at Year-Up said.

Nelson says we already know Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are tracking almost everything we do online. Now, we know the government is grabbing some of that data too.

Since it’s just another kind of domino, people are going to care less,” he said.

At the co-working site Rocketspace, I met Zach Goldberg. 
There are about 130 startups sharing offices in the building and Goldberg, an ex-Googler, was there for a meeting. Like a lot of techies I spoke to, he doesn’t really trust the media.

I would just hope that this doesn’t get too much publicity based on FUD,” he said. “FUD is Fear Uncertainty and Doubt, it’s a tactic that’s generally used to get people over-excited about something or perhaps overly scared than they should be.”

Goldberg says early press reports suggested that the NSA had a back door to the tech companies data servers and could take whatever it wanted. Later reports walked back that claim.

There’s a lot of sensational headlines and I don’t really think there’s a clear story out there yet.   

But now tech companies are trying to take control of the story. Google, Facebook and Yahoo asked to be released from their gag orders so they could talk about PRISM.

Many in the tech community think Silicon Valley is taking the fall for the government, said Sina Khanifar, a tech entrepreneur and privacy activists who helped launch an online email campaign asking Congress to investigate. At the same time, he says, some developers are worried that the Valley is losing its independent spirit.

“Why did we not see somebody from one of these companies whose committed to privacy leak this?” he asked, echoing sentiments that have been bubbling up on some developer blogs. And he wonders if the valley has become a little too comfortable with invading our privacy.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
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Oh please, spare me the altruistic trivia. Silicon Valley lost its virginity a long time ago. It's all about money.

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