Hi, all. Plaintext is bracing for the next wave … or, rather, the first wave getting worse. Gimme that flu shot!
The Plain View
To the best of my knowledge, Donald Trump has never visited a server farm. If he is aware of the amazing journey his rants take as they zip through the airwaves into Jack Dorsey’s data centers, he has never spoken about it. Nonetheless, the digital cloud seems to have taken on a strange prominence in the current administration’s economic policy. It’s almost as if the internet has become a strange attractor for deals that are tailored more to the president’s whims and grudges than the nation’s interests.
Even before the recent TikTok machinations—and don’t worry, I’ll get to those—the White House showed utter ham-handed bias when it comes to cloud contracts. I’m referring to the $10 billion JEDI project, one of the most prized government defense contracts in years. The frontrunner for that deal was Amazon Web Services (AWS). Amazon not only seemed to be the most qualified company, but had also proved itself to the Department of Defense and CIA by successfully performing in some smaller projects, demonstrating to a skeptical military establishment that a private company could be entrusted with critical data.
So it was a shock when the administration announced last November that the whole $10 billion contract would go to Microsoft. Could it possibly be that Amazon suffered because the president didn’t like the way The Washington Post covered him, and he wanted to get back at Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Post? Yes, it could, according to no less a source than Trump’s former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, who wrote in his book that the president told him to “screw Amazon.”
Citing bias, Amazon challenged the decision. Though the Pentagon reaffirmed its choice and swore that all was kosher, the suit is still pending.
But the JEDI scandal was only a warm-up for the TikTok fiasco. You will recall that in August, the president signed an executive order demanding that the wildly successful Chinese social network sell to an American company or cease operations in this country. The justification was that Chinese companies were security risks. The fear, as they tell it, is that secret malware in TikTok’s code might compromise Americans, that the app could be used in disinformation campaigns, and that the data it collects could go straight to China.
After multiple iterations of the deal—at one point it seemed that Microsoft would take over TikTok’s American business—a new agreement emerged, blessed by Trump’s economic team. TikTok’s American operations would be shifted to a US company, though still majority-owned by the Chinese firm. It would sell minority shares to Oracle and Walmart—two companies with leaders who are supporters of Donald Trump. (While Walmart did give money to Trump’s inaugural, it did not give his campaign 50 percent of its profits, as an internet meme had it.) For Oracle in particular—named TikTok’s “trusted technology partner”—the deal would be a fantastic boost to its cloud business. TikTok would instantly become one of Oracle’s biggest customers. The TikTok deal also includes a $5 billion gift from the newly Americanized company to a fund that promotes “patriotic education,” a Trump pet project. I’ll leave it to you readers to judge the propriety of gifts as part of a bidding process.
Though the administration says that national security will be assured in the deal, observers are charging the opposite. Though details are still fuzzy, it appears that TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance will not reveal to outsiders its source code or the valuable algorithm that makes the service so addictive. Microsoft pointed this out in a snippy statement after it lost the deal. “We are confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok’s users, while protecting national security interests,” it said in a statement. “To do this, we would have made significant changes to ensure the service met the highest standards for security, privacy, online safety, and combatting disinformation.” The implication is that now, those changes will not be made.
The president himself has issued contradictory statements on whether the deal meets his (shifting) standards. But what is clear is that the government’s dealings with the cloud business are very much clouded by who is nice and who is not nice to Donald Trump. That’s worrisome, because internet clouds work on trust. We take a leap of faith when we off-load our data. Will those companies keep the information secure? Will they hand over our personal data to governments? True, it’s a good thing to keep the personal information of US TikTok users out of Chinese data centers, as the authoritarian government there has access to any domestic servers it wants. But users in Western countries need the same assurances. If the executives who operate our data centers know that their business depends on catering to a president’s whims, how can we be confident that they will show backbone in resisting dicey government requests for user data?
It’s enough to make you store your files on flash drives and stuff them under the mattress. At least until our president decides to get involved in the internet mattress business.
When the Edward Snowden revelations exposed how US intelligence agencies were tapping cables outside the data centers of US companies, Silicon Valley was shocked. I explored this in a December 2014 WIRED story, “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet”:
At an appearance at a tech conference last September, Facebook’s Zuckerberg expressed his disgust. “The government blew it,” he said. But the consequences of the government’s actions—and the spectacular leak that informed the world about it—was now plopped into the problem set of Zuckerberg, Page, Tim Cook, Marissa Mayer, Steve Ballmer, and anyone else who worked for or invested in a company that held customer data on its servers.
Not just revenue was at stake. So were ideals that have sustained the tech world since the Internet exploded from a Department of Defense project into an interconnected global web that spurred promises of a new era of comity. The Snowden leaks called into question the Internet’s role as a symbol of free speech and empowerment. If the net were seen as a means of widespread surveillance, the resulting paranoia might affect the way people used it. Nations outraged at US intelligence-gathering practices used the disclosures to justify a push to require data generated in their countries to remain there, where it could not easily be hoovered by American spies. Implementing such a scheme could balkanize the web, destroying its open essence and dramatically raising the cost of doing business.
Ask Me One Thing
Corey writes, “You said we are allowed to ask for anything. and I have many, many tech questions. But what I need the most is the press contact information to Bill and Melinda Gates.”
Corey, do I look like Google? But you are correct—I invite readers to ask me anything. So here’s the contact page for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of particular interest to you will be the section about “media inquiries.” I do hope that either Bill or Melinda gives an interview to your TV station.
While we’re on the subject, let me take the chance to say that, in general, reporters aren’t the best conduit to the subjects they interview. It’s not like we hang out with our billionaire interviewees all the time, and late in our evenings with them, after we’ve drained the choicest bottles from their data-center-sized wine cellars, Bill or Jeff or Zuck will ask us, “Hey, did you get any emails recently from people who have come up with inventions that will make me more billions? Or a totally novel and foolproof idea for world peace?” I hope this clears up this apparently widely held misconception. And Corey, you are welcome to ask me those tech questions now.