Silicon Valley Leaders Blame the Public for Tech Threats to Privacy

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When asked to name the greatest threat to privacy from technology or a tech company, nearly a quarter of 50 Silicon Valley executives, thinkers and innovators surveyed (pdf) by The Atlantic blamed the public and their elected leaders.

Sixteen percent of those who participated in the publication’s first “Insiders Poll” blamed threats to privacy on “unconcerned citizens and our complacent culture” and 8% pointed a finger at government. Facebook garnered the most support as the most abusive tech company at 14%, followed by Google at 11%. Third-party data brokers also checked in at 8%.

While the execs aren’t too worried about the threat to privacy posed by their companies, they are a nervous crowd. Forty-two percent of them see evidence of a tech bubble, but The Atlantic included comments from two of the execs downplaying the fear factor. “Maybe the early stages of a bubble in very specific areas, but it’s only in private markets, and it’s not a general-case bubble,” Y Combinator President Sam Altman said.

BrightEdge founder and CEO Jim Yu said, “What we’re experiencing in the tech sector today is unlike the bubble of the ‘90s. It is true that we are witnessing incredible innovation, but this time around, that innovation is backed by revenue and strategic value.”

Over the past year, the NASDAQ Composite Index, a broad measure of technology stocks, rose 19% to its 52-week-high in September before stumbling along with the broader market over the last month. More than a decade ago, on March 20, 2000, NASDAQ lost 10% of its value in one day after doubling over the previous year.

And that was just the start. The NASDAQ dropped from 4,572 to under 2,000 within a year and bottomed out at 1,172 in September 2002. The dot-com bust laid waste to companies across the Silicon Valley, putting a damper on the arrogance and hubris that mark the industry, but not extinguishing it.

The most coveted status symbol among Silicon Valley executives is leaving their startup behind, according to the survey. Twenty-two percent said the biggest status symbol in their rarified community is an “exit,” either taking a company public or selling it. The second-biggest symbol was owning a Tesla (12%), followed by being the recipient of venture capital or an angel investment (10%).   

Thirty-one percent of them said they owned a drone and 13% predicted that more than 75% of U.S. households will have one in 10 years. Ideo CEO Tim Brown told The Atlantic he thought “society will push back on drones, just as it is pushing back on Google Glass, as we realize how intrusive they can be in basic human interactions.”

Twenty-seven percent of them own Google Glass and 21% said they planned on buying the product that essentially lets a person wear a computer on his face that takes pictures with a wink and responds to voice commands.

Other than the 42% who expressed fear of a tech bubble, the responses rarely received a strong plurality. But the execs are enamored of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now hiding out in the Soviet Union. Thirty-five percent labeled him a hero, presumably including Reddit CEO Yishan Wong, who called him a “dreamboat.” Eleven percent thought Snowden was a traitor and 24% said it was complicated.

Uber was judged “the most exciting tech start-up right now,” getting 22% of the vote. But 13% thought the ride-sharing company was the most overvalued tech company, topped only by Twitter at 17%.  Spredfast President and CEO Rod Favaron though valuing Uber at $17 billion, more than the entire transportation industry combined, was “just ridiculous.” Seven percent thought Snapchat and Facebook were the most overvalued.

If there was one subject that seemed to gather some form of unanimity, despite the seemingly divergent answers, it would be in answer to the question, “What is the biggest barrier to innovation in the United States?” Almost all the answers track back to government.

Twenty percent flat out blame its regulation and bureaucracy. But 16% point a finger at immigration policies, 14% take a shot at education, 10% fault the talent shortage (echoing the two previous choices) and another 8% cite the need for patent reform. Only 10% blame the barrier on a lack of diversity among tech executives, like themselves.

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

The View from the Valley (The Atlantic) (pdf)

More Than 40 Percent of Top Techies Think We're in a Bubble (by Kevin Montgomery, ValleyWag)

No-Poaching Collusion Cost Silicon Valley Workers Big; Deal Would Give Them a Pittance (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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