From Uber to Eric Schmidt, tech is closer to the US government than you’d think

What’s worse for a Silicon Valley executive: ties to the Chinese military or friends in the US Defense Department?

Twitter found itself confronting that question this week after it hired Kathy Chen, a former engineer for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to head up ad sales and business development in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Internet freedom activists and Chinese dissidents, who have to skirt Beijing’s digital censors to use Twitter, said it was a betrayal.

The spat illustrates the delicate balancing act technology companies face as they are forced to expand overseas to grow. In the US, Silicon Valley, like any industry, has embraced and relied on close relationships with former government officials both for technical talent and to help grease the wheels as they confront regulatory issues.

Alphabet’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, recently joined a Department of Defense advisory panel. Facebook recently hired a former director at the US military’s research lab, Darpa. Uber employs Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe and tapped his former spokesman Jay Carney.

Google, Facebook, Uber and Apple collectively employ a couple of dozen former analysts for America’s spy agencies, who openly list their résumés on LinkedIn.

These connections are neither new nor secret. But the fact they are so accepted illustrates how tech’s leaders – even amid current fights over encryption and surveillance – are still seen as mostly US firms that back up American values.

As Twitter seeks to sell more ads in China, Google ponders re-entering the market and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg makes visits to Beijing, that may change.

“If I’m at Twitter, it’s a smart, strategic move,” said Shawn Powers, author of The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom. “If I’m a policy maker for the US government, I would be concerned.”

Powers said it wasn’t clear if the reaction against Chen’s hire was based in nationalism or the fact that China is less transparent about how government and companies interact. “There are very specific suspicions about China’s role in the world,” he said.

Twitter has defended hiring Chen and says the executive has never been a member of the communist party, though acknowledges her PLA connections.

Confusingly, Twitter – along with Facebook, Google and other American tech firms – is technically banned in China but still has users who employ “virtual private networks” to get around China’s censors. The block also doesn’t stop the company from selling to Chinese advertisers, who want customers outside the country or to target the Chinese users who still find a way to use the service.

Company executives said her role is not related to Twitter posts but instead business with Chinese firms, some of which run ads on the service. And in China, where the lines between the private and public sector are more blurred than in the US, having someone who knows how the system works could be useful.

Christopher Soghoian, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, said low-level employees’ government connections matter less than leading executives’ ties to government.

For instance, at least a dozen Google engineers have worked at the NSA, according to publicly available records on LinkedIn. And, this being Silicon Valley, not everyone who worked for a spy agency advertises that on LinkedIn.

Soghoian, a vocal critic of mass surveillance, said Google hiring an ex-hacker for the NSA to work on security doesn’t really bother him. “But Eric Schmidt having a close relationship with the White House does,” he said.

In March, the Defense Department announced Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, would head a board to help the defense secretary, Ashton Carter, navigate new technology.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In January, executives from several technology firms, including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, met with US national security officials to see if there were ways they could better help the government counter Islamic extremism on their social networks.

And, to be sure, while Chen’s role at Twitter may be business-related, she still appears to recognize the power of a technology company to promote a country’s interest.

In reply to a tweet from CCTV, China’s state television service, announcing her new job, Chen replied:

— Kathy Chen (@kathychen2016)
April 15, 2016

@cctvnews @jack let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!

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