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Mon Sep 9, 2019, 08:40 PM

We're Not Ready for a Massive Digital Terror Attack

The leaders of Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, and other tech giants filed into the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Opposite them was the top brass of the Obama administration, including President Obama himself. It was a few days before Christmas 2013. The tech execs had come to convince the government to roll back its mass surveillance regime that had recently been revealed thanks to a whistleblower named Edward Snowden.

The two sides, tech and government, went back and forth, civil but tense. At one point, Obama said that as angry and concerned as Americans were about the NSA’s practices, the tech companies in the room collected far more information on people than the government did. “I have a suspicion,” Obama told the executives, “that the guns will turn.”

That eerily prescient moment is told for the first time in Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, a new book by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, and coauthor Carol Ann Browne, a member of Smith’s team. A long-time adviser to Bill Gates, Smith leads a huge swath of Microsoft but is also a public conscience of sorts for the grow-at-all-costs tech sector. He consults with presidents, foreign officials, and fellow tech leaders; the New York Times dubbed him “a de facto ambassador for the technology industry at large.” Smith was in the Roosevelt Room in 2013, and he has been a driving force behind Microsoft’s lawsuits against the Obama and Trump administrations as well as its efforts to unite tech giants, governments, and nonprofit groups to combat terrorist and extremist content online.

Smith’s book is not the typical vanity project churned out by so many Fortune 500 leaders, the generic tomes on leadership and teamwork stocked at airport bookstores near the neck pillows. Tools and Weapons is a glimpse behind the curtain as Microsoft reckoned with the Snowden revelations, defended against the vicious cyberattacks, and took both the Obama and Trump administrations to court. Smith also doesn’t shy away from taking Big Tech to task.

Smith recently spoke with Rolling Stone at Microsoft’s offices in Times Square. We discussed breaking up Big Tech, why the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the Three-Mile Island of the tech sector, and what a digital September 11th attack on the U.S. could look like. “We are not yet prepared either to fully prevent such an attack,” he says, “or to know how we would respond as a nation if it happened.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The first story you tell in Tools and Weapons is about the Snowden leak in 2013. From that day to today, it feels like the major technology-driven events have skewed more toward peril than promise. Russian active measures, the Equifax hack in 2017, Cambridge Analytica in 2018, the Christchurch attacks in 2019. Are we at a crossroads, an inflection point, in how we think about technology and how it shapes our lives?

It is fair to say we have reached a crossroads. We reached it last year when the Cambridge Analytica issue exploded. For years, there had been a debate within the tech sector about privacy and whether people actually cared about it. One school of thought said that privacy was dead and people should get over it, and another school said that that was not the case.

I have long felt that the tech sector ran the risk of following in the footsteps of the nuclear power industry in the United States. It was so enthusiastic about the good things it was creating that it wasn’t preparing itself or the public for a broader conversation about potential privacy challenges. Cambridge Analytica was a bit of a Three Mile Island moment. Suddenly, attitudes changed in Washington D.C., and it’s as if we hit a fork in the road, went down a different path, and things like the Christchurch attack accelerated the progress down that path.



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