"Culturally, the Valley was already maturing before 9/11, but since
then it's definitely developed a deeper respect for leaders and
May 26, 2002
Webbed, Wired and Worried
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Ever since I learned that Mohamed Atta made his reservation for Sept.
11 using his laptop and the American Airlines Web site, and that
several of his colleagues used Travelocity.com, I've been wondering
how the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were looking at the 9/11
tragedy — whether it was giving them any pause about the wired world
they've been building and the assumptions they are building it upon.
In a recent visit to Stanford University and Silicon Valley, I had a
chance to pose these questions to techies. I found at least some of
their libertarian, technology-will-solve-everything cockiness was
gone. I found a much keener awareness that the unique web of
technologies Silicon Valley was building before 9/11 — from the
Internet to powerful encryption software — can be incredible force
multipliers for individuals and small groups to do both good and
evil. And I found an acknowledgment that all those technologies had
been built with a high degree of trust as to how they would be used,
and that that trust had been shaken. In its place is a greater
appreciation that high-tech companies aren't just threatened by their
competitors — but also by some of their users.
"The question `How can this technology be used against me?' is now a
real R-and-D issue for companies, where in the past it wasn't really
even being asked," said Jim Hornthal, a former vice chairman of
Travelocity.com. "People here always thought the enemy was Microsoft,
not Mohamed Atta."
It was part of Silicon Valley lore that successful innovations would
follow a well-trodden path: beginning with early adopters, then early
mass-appeal users and finally the mass market. But it's clear now
there is also a parallel, criminal path — starting with the early
perverters of a new technology up to the really twisted perverters.
For instance, the 9/11 hijackers may have communicated globally
through steganography software, which lets users e-mail, say, a baby
picture that secretly contains a 300-page compressed document or even
a voice message.
"We have engineered large parts of our system on an assumption of
trust that may no longer be accurate," said a Stanford law professor,
Joseph A. Grundfest. "Trust is hard-wired into everything from
computers to the Internet to building codes. What kind of building
codes you need depends on what kind of risks you thought were out
there. The odds of someone flying a passenger jet into a tall
building were zero before. They're not anymore. The whole objective
of the terrorists is to reduce our trust in all the normal
instruments and technologies we use in daily life. You wake up in the
morning and trust that you can get to work across the Brooklyn Bridge
— don't. This is particularly dangerous because societies which have
a low degree of trust are backward societies."
Silicon Valley staunchly opposed the Clipper Chip, which would have
given the government a back-door key to all U.S. encrypted
data. Now some wonder whether they shouldn't have opposed it. John
Doerr, the venture capitalist, said, "Culturally, the Valley was
already maturing before 9/11, but since then it's definitely
developed a deeper respect for leaders and government institutions."
At Travelocity, Mr. Hornthal noted, whether the customer was Mohamed
Atta or Bill Gates, "our only responsibility was to
authenticate your financial ability to pay. Did your name and credit
card match your billing address? It was not our responsibility, nor
did we have the ability, to authenticate your intent with that
ticket, which requires a much deeper sense of identification. It may
though, that this is where technology will have to go — to allow a
deeper sense of identification."
Speaking of identity, Bethany Hornthal, a marketing consultant, noted
that Silicon Valley had always been a multicultural place
where young people felt they could go anywhere in the world and fit
in. They were global kids. "Suddenly after 9/11, that changed,"
she said. "Suddenly they were Americans, and there was a certain
danger in that identity. [As a result] the world has become more
defined and restricted for them. Now you ask, Where is it safe to go
as an American?" So there is this sense, she concluded, that
thanks to technology and globalization, "the world may have gotten
smaller — but I can't go there anymore."
Or as my friend Jack Murphy, a venture capitalist, mused to me as we
discussed the low state of many high-tech investments, "Maybe I
should have gone into the fence business instead."
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