As the dangers of NSA spying slowly come to light, with issues ranging from potential CIA spying on US political leaders and stealing documents from the US Senate to a precipitous drop in worldwide confidence in U.S.-based technology platforms, Bill Gates, founder of the core operating system in over 90% of the world’s computers, deftly made the case for NSA spying in a recent Rolling Stone interview.  Notable in the interview is not so much what Gates said, but what he didn’t say.

bill gates

While Mark Zuckerberg, the mainstream of the tech community and traditional liberals such as U.S. Senator and one time NSA apologist Diane Feinstein (D-CA) begin to openly question damaging NSA spy techniques, Gates struck a decidedly different note — and in fact even utilized the typical scare tactic that NSA computer-based surveillance systems will protect against imminent catastrophe, even deploying “the dirty bomb” concern.

Dirty bomb scare used, but NSA success ratios ignored

“I would be very worried,” he responded when discussing the balance between safety and privacy.  Who should we be worried about?  “Not just bad guys. Crazy guys. Fertilizer wasn’t too good for the federal building in Oklahoma City, but there’s stuff out there now that makes fertilizer look like a joke,” then moving on to a dirty bomb or biological weapon scare scenario.

Gates didn’t discuss damage done to the U.S. tech community

Emotional scare tactics have been used in other political campaigns throughout the ages to mobilize support for covert causes in the past, most notably the weapons of mass destruction scare to support the Iraq war that received little debate in the media. 

While Gate’s fear of the next dirty bomb could be real, the issue of the NSA’s dubious track record at uncovering such plots using internet-based mass spying techniques was not discussed. Further, now that most people – including terrorists – are aware computer-based communications have been compromised, the relative value of computer-based spying the damage versus tt has done to the U.S. technology industry wasn’t addressed. 

Critics have cited NSA spying as significantly risking the Silicon Valley business model to achieve relatively little reward, yet Gates didn’t touch this hot potato. One could also ask did Gates have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders when he was at Microsoft to disclose or resist efforts for the spy agency to use the Windows operating system and related products if it could damage this brand trust?    

Gates no Snowden fan

When the topic turned to Edward Snowden, Gates had strong opinions that could have just as easily come out of the mouth of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder or any of the military industrial complex spy apparatus mouthpieces.  “I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn’t characterize him as a hero,” Gates flatly proclaimed.  “You won’t find much admiration from me.”

Based on available information, it can be argued that Edward Snowden has significantly suffered from his decision to provide information to journalists about previously unknown NSA spying activities on U.S. citizens. Given current laws, if Snowden returns to the US he could face solitary confinement and may not even be able to properly defend himself in court – all for disclosing an increasingly intrusive spy apparatus that posses the potential to control a society to a degree never before imagined, another topic left unaddressed by Gates.  What Gates did address was the common call heard among those who favor domestic spying. 

“If he wanted to raise the issues and stay in the country and engage in civil disobedience or something of that kind,” Gates might look at the issue differently, he said, failing to address the issue that Snowden claims to have raised the issue to his NSA supervisors ten times, but to no avail. 

The issues Gates left unaddressed just kept coming as he finished his thought. “Or if he had been careful in terms of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model of ‘OK, I’m really trying to improve things,’” Gates, like many NSA supporters, rationalized.  This comment ignores the fact that intelligence reports say the core of what Snowden had revealed – that the U.S. had sophisticated internet-based spy apparatus in place – was likely known in intelligence, diplomatic and terrorist networks. 

What has been exposed to date is the fact that the U.S. has engaged in a massive illegal spying campaign on citizens and world leaders – most problematically including US citizens and political leaders. Furthermore, Snowden leaked the documents to unbiased journalists who have been careful in reviewing the information before publishing it, and actually only a small amount of the information has been published thus far.

Gates fails to discuss the potential for government abuse in an environment where whistleblowing is the only solution

When weighing the benefits vs the costs of the new surveillance state, Gates fails to discuss in a meaningful fashion the potential for serious government abuse.  Again using the scare tactic of a significant terrorist strike, he said if there was a possibility to stop such an action it is worth the loss of privacy.  “Who do you trust?” he asked, but failed to address the long history of government abuse of trust.   “Should surveillance be usable for petty crimes like jaywalking or minor drug possession? Or is there a higher threshold for certain information? Those aren’t easy questions. Should the rules be different for U.S. citizens versus non-U.S. citizens?” he questioned, using rhetoric to avoid discussing the potential for a government spy apparatus exerting a significant degree of control over a country’s political discourse.

“There is the question of terrorist interdiction versus law-enforcement situations. If you think the state is overzealous in any of its activities, even if you agree with its sort of anti-large-scale-terrorism efforts, you might say, ‘Well, I think the abuse will outweigh the benefits. I’ll just take the risk.’ But the people who say that sometimes having this information is valuable – they’re not being very articulate right now,” Gates said, appearing to encourage NSA supporters to be more vocal in the debate.

It is the debate over the NSA where Gates perhaps appears most hypocritical. “I actually wish we were having more intense debates about these things,” Gates said as he conspicuously failed to address the key issues. For instance, when talking about Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)’s Mark Zuckerberg, Gates didn’t touch issues of government overreach or damage done to the Internet, but instead mimicked the establishment talking points.   

Out of touch

Gates has been characterized as out of touch with the mainstream of today’s technology movement. For those hoping the man who created the core operating system – and arguably collaborated with the NSA to spy on its customers – would help defend Silicon Valley against an unaccountable privacy and control apparatus and a legal process that only operates in the shadows, this Rolling Stone interview is more than disappointing. His complacency and refusal to face facts is positively scary.