Security for Startups: A 10-Step Affordable Plan to Survival in Cyberspace

This post originally appeared in TechCrunch.

In the past two years, cyberspace has clearly changed in ways that threaten every online business, big or small. Startups now use the cloud infrastructure that mature companies do, and quickly aggregate large, juicy caches of private user data and payment credentials. As malware infestations scale to scour the “long tail” of targets, they don’t discriminate between the Fortune 50 and the TechCrunch 50.
In fact, some increasingly common attacks — like DDoS extortion — specifically target smaller, more vulnerable businesses, whose loose cowboy cultures, shallow security expertise, fragile infrastructure and fresh capital make for easy pickings.
Jeremy Grant at NIST reports “a relatively sharp increase in hackers and adversaries targeting small businesses.” According to a recent survey, 20 percent of small businesses in Canada reported cyber losses last year. Who knows how many more fell victim and just don’t know it?
“Startups are incredibly vulnerable to cyber attacks in their first 18 months. If a business thinks that it’s too small to matter to cybercriminals, then it’s fooling itself with a false sense of security.” – Brian Burch, Symantec (CNN)

For many attacks—API disruption, marketplace fraud, IP theft—the smaller the target, the greater the damage. Startups often lose a year or more when targeted by identity thieves, nation-states, hacktivists, competitors, disgruntled employees, IP thieves, fraudsters or Bitcoin miners. Evernote, Meetup, Feedly, Vimeo, BaseCamp, Shutterstock, MailChimp and Bit.ly all fell victim to extortion rackets, and Code Spaces shut downaltogether. “When our API collapsed under a DDoS attack, we experienced more customer churn in that one day than we had in the entire two years since our launch,” recalled one CEO.
StubhubUber, and Tinder struggle to battle fraud in their marketplaces. Uber employees themselves were caught defrauding competitor Gett. EvernoteBit.ly,FormspringDropboxCupid MediaZendesk, SnapchatClinkleMeetMeLastPass (a password security company!) and many others have had to tell users they lost their passwords or payment credentials to hackers. Cyber thieves stole $5 million worth of Bitcoins from Bitstamp, and destroyed Mt. Gox and Flexcoin. Hackers exposed the content and identities of Yik Yak accounts. The CEOs of HB GarySnapchat and many other startups have been vilified following the theft and publication of embarrassing emails. Google routinely blacklists websites for weeks due to malware. Appstudio,SendGridHB Gary and others have been defaced or even permanently shut down by anti-Western hacktivists for political reasons. For OnlyHonest.com, the damage appears to have been fatal.
And even if your startup beats the odds and survives its infancy
BVP-Cyber-Security-Graphic
Continue reading "Security for Startups: A 10-Step Affordable Plan to Survival in Cyberspace"

The Failure of Cyber Security and the Startups Who Will Save Us

2014 will be remembered as the year the cyber dam broke, breached by sophisticated hackers who submerged international corporations and government agencies in a flood of hurt. Apple, Yahoo, PF Changs, AT&T, Google, Walmart, Dairy Queen, UPS, eBay, Neiman Marcus, US Department of Energy and the IRS all reported major losses of private data relating to customers, patients, taxpayers and employees. Breaches at Boeing, US Transportation Command, US Army Corps of Engineers, and US Investigations Services (who runs the FBI’s security clearance checks) reported serious breaches of national security. Prior to last year, devastating economic losses had accrued only to direct targets of cyberwarfare, such as RSA and Saudi Aramaco, but in 2014, at least five companies with no military ties -- JP Morgan, Target, Sony, Kmart, and Home Depot – incurred losses exceeding $100M from forensic expenses, investments in remediation, fines, legal fees, re-organizations, and class-action lawsuits, not to mention damaged brands.

The press has already reported on where things went wrong at each company, promoting a false sense of security based on the delusion that remediating this vulnerability or that one would have prevented the damage. This kind of forensic review works for aviation disasters, where we have mature, well understood systems and we can fix the problems we find in an airplane. But information networks are constantly changing, and adversaries constantly invent new exploits. If one doesn’t work, they simply use another, and therein lies the folly of forensics.

Only when you step back and look at 2014 more broadly can you see a pattern that points toward a systemic failure of the security infrastructure underlying corporate networks, described below. So until we see a seismic shift in how vendors and enterprises think about security, hackers will only accelerate their pace of “ownership” of corporate and government data assets.

The Sprawl of Cyberwarfare

The breaches of 2014 demonstrate how cyberwarfare has fueled the rampant spread of cyber crime.

For the past decade, the world’s three superpowers, as well as UK, North Korea and Israel, quietly developed offensive capabilities for the purposes of espionage and military action. Destructive attacks by geopolitical adversaries have clearly been reported on private and public sector targets in the US, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. While Snowden exposed the extent of cyber espionage by the US, no one doubts that other nations prowl cyberspace to a similar or greater extent.

The technical distinction of these national cyber agencies is that they developed the means to target specific data assets or systems around the world, and to work their way through complex networks, over months or years, to achieve their missions. Only a state could commit the necessary combination Continue reading "The Failure of Cyber Security and the Startups Who Will Save Us"

Disrupting the Market for Souls

Last night at dinner with a group of officers from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, Oxford Professor and legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asked me to explain why I signed up to be a Trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Later I was asked to share those comments, so here they are:

From inside Silicon Valley, it may seem somehow unnecessary or obsolete to promote science. But it’s easy to forget how fortunate and enlightened we are here. The scientific method is ingrained in everything we do. Instead of A/B testing your apps to improve your conversion funnel, would you ever rely instead on prayer, ritual and miracles?

But in the world at large, and even our country, most people still do not value the proven theories of scientists, either because they themselves do not understand science, or because there is too much social and emotional pressure upon them to value faith over evidence-based beliefs.

Still, so what? Why invest my limited time and capital in a startup foundation that promotes science and secularism?

As I would for any startup investment opportunity, I naturally start my assessment by looking at the incumbents in the vibrant market for people’s souls, to see how vulnerable they are to disruption. And as I deconstruct the businesses of religion, here’s what I see:
  • The largest possible market -- 7 billion customers!
  • Awesome value proposition – immortality – that addresses the most basic human desire.
  • A recurring revenue business model.
  • A Net Promoter Score higher than Apple's, where their customers go door to door on their behalf and build schools to sell their product.
  • An impressively large and distributed field sales organization staffed by product evangelists (literally) who work for low wages.
  • Enormous government subsidies in the form of 100% tax relief, and similar government subsidies for all their customers!
  • Enormously high switching costs – customers who churn can lose their jobs, friends, even family, and in some countries their head.
The only drawback is product quality. Not only is immortality difficult to deliver, but the entire industry agrees that only one of the thousands of products on the market actually works. The good news is that customers pay prior to shipment, and there is no mechanism for rating product satisfaction.

That's a business I would want to own!

The downsides are simply economic externalities – costs that are mostly born by others. Some are obvious, like Jihad and the oppression of gays and women. But the most dangerous externality of all is more subtle, and that’s the marginalization of science.

Broun: "Lies straight from the pit of Hell"
To keep their customers, religions convince them that faith trumps evidence, and in Continue reading "Disrupting the Market for Souls"

Dinosaurs in Space!

PCs and smartphones have pushed mainframes to the brink of extinction on Earth, and yet mainframes still thrive in space.

Most every satellite in orbit is a floating dinosaur - a bloated, one-off, expensive, often militarized, monolithic relic of the mainframe era. The opportunity for entrepreneurs today is to launch modern computer networks into space, disrupting our aging infrastructure with an Internet of microsats. 

Credit DeviantArt.com
So why has it taken so long for modern computing to reach space? Gravity. It’s hard to launch things. Governments have the money and patience to do it, as do large cable and telecom corporations. These players are slow to innovate, and large satellites have met their basic needs around science, defense, and communications, albeit at very high costs.

That’s changing:  several IT trends have come together to herald the extinction of these orbiting pterodactyls:
  • Moore’s law has reached the point where a single rocket launch can be amortized across dozens of tiny satellites, and the replacement cost is so low that we needn’t burden our missions with triple redundancies and a decade of testing
  • Global computing clouds make it easy to deploy ground stations; and
  • Advances in Big Data enable us to process the torrential flows of information we get from distributed networks

These trends have reduced the cost of a single aerospace mission from a billion dollars down to a hundred million just as the early-stage VC community amassed enough capital to undertake projects of this scope. And now that a handful of venture-backed startups like SpaceX and Skybox are demonstrating success, the number of aerospace business plans circulating through Sand Hill Road has climbed faster than a Falcon 9.

With each successful startup, progress accelerates and synergies emerge. As SpaceX makes launches cheaper, it opens the frontier to more entrepreneurs. Pioneers like Skybox and Planet Labs have to build end-to-end solutions for their markets, including everything from satellite buses to big data search algorithms; but there will soon evolve an ecosystem of vendors who specialize in launch mechanisms, cubesats, sensors, inter-sat communications, analytics, and software applications.

So who are the customers for a space-based Internet? At first, aerospace startups will disrupt two large markets:

·       Scientific exploration of space.  In the past, costly scientific missions such as Apollo ($355 million in 1966), ISS ($3 billion/year), Hubble ($10 billion), and Cassini ($3.3 billion) were designed and built by government agencies. Expect startups to disrupt this market with innovations in rocketry, robotics, optics, cloud computing, space suits, renewable energy, and more.

·       Communications. Government defense agencies spend considerable sums on communications to serve their space-based weapon systems and intelligence bureaus. Media and cable companies also commission Continue reading "Dinosaurs in Space!"

The Admins in BVP’s Companies Are No Longer "Unsung" Heroes

With sincere appreciation for the thankless job executed day in and out by the admins at BVP and our portfolio companies, I spent today with a barbershop quartet making our way from San Jose to San Francisco serenading these heroes of Silicon Valley. The final stop, captured below, was at Smule to recognize office manager Erika San Miguel.

Cyber Soothsaying: Where There’s a Way, There’s a Will

This week, the RSA Conference draws its annual pilgrimage of data security professionals seeking insights on market and technology trends. As a seed-stage security investor in this industry, it has been my job to predict the future of cybersecurity, and so now’s a good time to share two important rules that have served me well:


(i)                Follow the Money: what’s the most lucrative opportunity emerging for hackers today? Identify the hacker’s next big opportunity, and you know who will need to respond! This rule, for example, steered me toward spam in 2002 (Postini), online banking theft in 2004 (Cyota), geopolitical warfare in 2009 (Endgame) and DDoS attacks in 2013 (Defense.Net).

(ii)              Where There’s A Way There’s A Will. Physicists know that if a natural phenomenon can exist, then most likely it does.  The cyber corollary is that vulnerabilities in the wild WILL be exploited – it’s only a matter of time.  Poisoning the DNS, using the cloud to factor large numbers, and streaming smartphone microphones were all considered theoretical attacks, until they weren’t. Whenever we dismiss vulnerabilities as too difficult to exploit, hackers eventually humble us with their ingenuity.


Just this week we saw two important examples of this rule in action. The first is Apple’s confirmationof a glaring deficiency in their implementation of SSL that means we’ve been kidding ourselves about how secure the Mac and iPhone really are. The software engineers at Apple are mortal, and just as prone to the inevitable security lapses that plague any complex system.

The second example is a blog postby RSA about new malware on Android phones that coordinate with web based attacks to hijack banking sessions. I have been expecting this “innovation” since 2005, when I predictedthat banks, plagued by the security shortcomings of passwords and biometrics, would adopt and embrace out-of-band authentication for any risky transaction:

That's why solutions in the future will move away from 2-factor authentication and toward 2-channel authentication. Since your bank knows your phone numbers, a bank computer can simply call you when it needs to confirm your identity, and authorize the specific transaction ("This is Wells Fargo--please enter the code on your screen to authorize the transfer of $50,000 from your account to the account of the Boys and Girls Club of Belfast"). This is a very inexpensive and fast solution to deploy, and requires much less customer training. Not to mention that it's secure (at least for many years, until hackers can easily identify and commandeer affiliated phone lines).

This prediction turned out well: 2-channel authentication has since become standard procedure for banks, application developers and consumers, thanks largely to three investments I made
Continue reading "Cyber Soothsaying: Where There’s a Way, There’s a Will"

Bessemer’s New Office in Minecraft

As BVP expands its global footprint, today our firm announced the opening of an office in an important new geography: Minecraft. With 35 million broadband-connected residents, growing at 100% per year, Minecraft has become a hotbed of innovation.

You can get to Bessemer's new office by pointing your Minecraft client to mc.bvp.com. Or, thanks to the recent integration of Twitch.TV into Minecraft, you can tour the office through this video below. (The thumbnail shows SkySat-1, the first geo-imaging sat launched by Skybox, currently imaging Bessemer's new office.) The video tour was shared on Twitch by my sons Avery and Eliot, who built the new office for BVP, on time and on budget!


Entrepreneurs with new ways to farm pigs, fabricate redstone circuitry, or defend against creepers can submit their business plans into a /kit in the office lobby. We even have office hours Wednesdays at 10am pacific. See you there!


The Internet’s Neighborhood Watch



The Neighborhood Watch dates back to July 1, 1700 in Colonial Philadelphia with the passage of the Safe Streets bill. With no police department yet established, citizens took turns as the appointed watchmen to "go round ye town with a small bell in ye night time, to give notice of ye time of night and the weather, and anie disorders or danger."

In many ways, cyberspace today feels like Colonial Philadelphia - fraught with "disorders and dangers" and no police force capable of apprehending the offenders. No wonder then that last February President Obama signed an executive order calling on Americans in the public and private sector to establish the equivalent of a cyber Neighborhood Watch.
"It is the policy of the United States to enhance the security and resilience of the Nation's critical infrastructure and to maintain a cyber environment that encourages efficiency, innovation, and economic prosperity while promoting safety, security, business confidentiality, privacy, and civil liberties. We can achieve these goals through a partnership with the owners and operators of critical infrastructure to improve cybersecurity information sharing..."
But sharing cyber threat data is shockingly rare, despite the fact that for the last two decades, hackers have steadily organized a vibrant industry around the tools and services needed to launch cyber attacks --credit card credentials, script kiddies, zero day vulnerabilities, bot armies, and other staples of cyberwarfare are sold through web sites and channels similar to those associated with legitimate IT purchases. And yet up until 12 months ago, when a wave of cyber attacks against US banks, government agencies and media sites exposed our economy's soft underbelly, no enterprise would ever voluntarily discuss its security infrastructure, let alone acknowledge a breach or even an attack, lest they worry their constituents.

But in those 4 months from October 2012 to February 2013, everything changed. A steady drumbeat of DDoS attacks rendered our banks offline and, for the first time, account holders have demanded their banks openly address the problem. In a novel gesture of transparency and collaboration, Bank of America actually asked the Feds for help.

The US has responded by organizing industry and government to start collaborating, so that cyber attackers, as they are detected, cannot simply jump from target to target. Twenty nine federal agencies today share real-time threat data stemming from cyber incidents through an exchange integrated with all the heterogeneous security infrastructure across those agencies. Suspect IP addresses, bad app signatures, malicious domain names, fraudulent host names, and other types of black lists are now updated in real time to broadly deflect attacks as they are discovered.

Furthermore, this federal "ActiveTrust Exchange" has now been opened up to large commercial enterprises, including financial institutions
Continue reading "The Internet’s Neighborhood Watch"

Richard Dawkins and Atheist A Cappella

Richard Dawkins is a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, often stopping at Kepler's to sign books, or speaking at schools (today he taught evolutionary theory to the students at Nueva). In 2009, while he was here for a book tour for Greatest Show on Earth, I hosted a fundraiser for his foundation, for which I organized the first ever atheist a cappella group from among singers I know who tire of crooning about saviors and magical births. Having read Dawkins' book Climbing Mount Improbable, we called ourselves Hereby Chants.

Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson
Well this Sunday the Hereby Chants had the honor of delivering an encore performance for Richard at a private lunch for his foundation's supporters, and here it is...

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

Tonight I had the honor of introducing Richard Dawkins at a Kepler's Bookstore book-signing for his memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. Here are my notes from the intro:

Good evening! I’m your neighbor David Cowan, and with Thanksgiving only 6 weeks away, it’s my job tonight to share with you 6 reasons why we are all very fortunate.

First, we are fortunate to have Kepler’s in our community so we can meet our literary and scientific heroes.

Second we are fortunate because tonight we have a visitor, Richard Dawkins, who ranks among the handful of greatest scientists of our generation. From his perch at Oxford, Professor Dawkins has advanced evolutionary biology, and authored several of the best-selling science books ever published, including Extended Phenotype, Selfish Gene, Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, Devil’s Chaplain, and God Delusion, which has sold millions of copies.

Another book of his, Climbing Mount Improbable, taught me our third good fortune tonight: that after billions of years of chaos, life sprung on our little planet, our species emerged from a trillion accidents of nature, and the organisms sitting in this room won the lottery of conception. (You may notice that these fortunes are not necessarily presented in any increasing or decreasing order of magnitude.)

And now he’s written his memoirs, An Appettite for Wonder: the Making of a Scientist, and we are quadruply fortunate that after multiple visits here, Kepler’s remains one of Richard’s favorite places to meet his readers.

The first chapter of his memoirs recounts his family history in which Clinton George Augustus Dawkins, consul to Austria and not yet a father in 1830, was fired upon by a cannonball that just barely missed his privates. Naturally, that is good fortune number five for us tonight.

The memoirs go on to document the intellectual development of Earth’s most famous atheist, from humble beginnings on a country farm, and parents who lived sparingly in order to afford the finest education for their children. Reading about the collision of his Anglican indoctrination with natural evidence and common sense evoked strong memories of my own religious upbringing, as I’m sure it would for many of you. He writes:
“I was intensely religious around the time I was confirmed. I priggishly upbraided my mother for not going to church. She took it very well and didn’t tell me, as she should have, to take a running jump.”
But soon Young Richard (or Clinton which we now know to be his true name) started to question the institutional rituals around him. This is my favorite chapter…
[p. 140] I was especially incensed by the hypocrisy of the General Confession in Continue reading "An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist"

The Coming Wave of Cloud Security Startups

This is a reprint of an article I wrote this week for MIT Technology Review.

Our growing computer security problems will create many new companies.

The threat from cyber-intrusions seems to have exploded in just the last 18 months. Mainstream media now report regularly on massive, targeted data breaches and on the digital skirmishes waged among nation states and cybermilitants.

Unlike other looming technical problems that require innovation to address, cybersecurity never gets solved. The challenges of circuit miniaturization, graphical computing, database management, network routing, server virtualization, and similarly mammoth technical problems eventually wane as we tame their complexity. Cybersecurity is a never-ending Tom and Jerry cartoon. Like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, attackers adapt to our defenses and render them obsolete.

As in most areas of IT and computing, innovation in security springs mostly from startup companies. Larger systems companies like Symantec, Microsoft, and Cisco contribute to the corpus of cybersecurity, but mostly acquire their new technologies from startups. Government agencies with sophisticated cyberskills tend to innovate more on the offensive side. I think that in the coming years we will see many small, creative teams of security engineers successfully discovering, testing, and building out clever new ways to secure cyberspace.

Anyone looking to found or invest in one of those small security companies destined for success should focus on the tsunami of change rocking the IT world known as cloud computing. In a transformation that eclipses even the advent of client–server computing in the 1980s, business are choosing to subscribe to services in the cloud over running software on their own physical servers. Incumbents in every category of software are being disrupted by cloud-based upstarts. According to Forrester, the global market for cloud computing will grow more than sixfold this decade, to over a quarter trillion dollars.


Cloud security, as it is known, is today one of the less mature areas of cloud computing, but it has already become clear that it will become a significant chunk of that vast new market. A Gartner report earlier this year predicted that the growth of cloud-based security services would overtake traditional security services in the next three years.

Just like other software products, conventional security appliances are being replaced by cloud-based alternatives that are easier to deploy, cheaper to manage, and always up-to-date. Cloud-based security protections can also be more secure, since the vendor can correlate events and profile attacks across all of its customers’ networks. This collaborative capability will be critical in the coming years as the private sector looks to government agencies like the National Security Agency for protection from cyberattacks.

The cloud also enables new security services based on so-called big data, which could simply not exist as standalone products.
Continue reading "The Coming Wave of Cloud Security Startups"

How Long Will the U.S. Cloud Market be "Snowed In"?

Do recent revelations about US cyber intelligence activities jeopardize our nation’s market leadership in cloud computing? Will enterprises – domestic and foreign alike – now favor foreign vendors, or even avoid the public cloud altogether? A review of the political and technical realities points to trouble for US cloud providers, but only for the short term.
In recent weeks we’ve seen a tangible backlash against the NSA’s PRISM program and those tech companies who cooperate, especially those who “don’t put up a fight.” It is the natural, reflexive reaction to the sudden awareness of a potential intrusion on our privacy, and it includes new scrutiny by individuals and enterprises as to whether they should entrust their data to US cloud vendors, who have already felt some impact on their rates of sales and churn.
As related news reports and editorials come online, they provoke a lot of comments that reflect public sentiment. These comments have expressed concern about the lack of transparency in federal policies and jurisdiction, and even outrage at what many believe to be unconstitutional surveillance.
But in the past week, public comments on news sites have started to incorporate a more balanced look at the situation. There is acknowledgement that US intelligence agencies are doing their jobs when they gather data on potential threats to national security, just as other governments do; that the NSA does not steal IP for economic gain as many other state agencies do, and that despite our deficiencies, the US agencies operate under tighter oversight than foreign agencies. Especially as Congress moves to improve transparency, there is a grudging awareness that US-based clouds may offer the best privacy, relatively.
But is it good enough to be simply less bad? As long as privacy remains a concern, there will be resistance to adoption of any public clouds, and, as the market leaders, US vendors will suffer.
Fortunately, cryptographic technology will ultimately make this issue largely moot for most cloud infrastructure, platforms and applications. To date, cloud vendors have been slow to implement proper cryptographic protocols, since demand has grown so quickly without it. But with the recent focus on privacy, SaaS, PaaS and IaaS providers must get around to implementing what they should have implemented years ago.
Specifically, data in the cloud must be encrypted using keys that are controlled by the customers who own them. So whether you use SalesForce, Box, Google Apps or Workday, you should have the option of encrypting your data both in transit and storage, and although many cloud providers offer encryption today, they typically use one key for everyone, or at best they offer individual keys that are generated and controlled by the vendor.

EyePhones Will Replace iPhones


I presented the following prediction as part of a spirited Churchill Club debate with 5 other VCs. It was first published as text in AllThingsD.



Remember MS-DOS commands, and the WordStar keystroke combinations we had to memorize? Then the first Macintosh featured a mouse driven GUI that was game changing because it removed a layer of friction for both the data going in and coming out. When we tried that first model, we knew we could never go back to a C prompt.


And yet the impact of graphical computing was minor compared to how facial computing will change our lives, and how we all relate to The Collective. Think of it as a man-in-the-middle attack on our senses, intercepting all the signals we see and hear, and enhancing them before they reach our brains.


First Generation Mobile Computer
This is not science fiction, and based on prototypes I’ve seen, it’s a good bet that design teams in Google, Apple, Samsung and various military contractors are building eyewear computers that will render smartphones as obsolete as the first generation of mobile computer. I’m not talking about Google Glass, with its cute little screen in the corner. I mean an immersive experience that processes what we see, and then overlays graphical objects onto our field of view: true Terminator Vision. The US military has this capability today, so that troops can see pointers to their platoon members, and markers of known IED locations. So now it’s just a question of making the hardware small, cheap, and available in four adorable colors.



Not only will our favorite apps on eyewear computers be more immediate and engaging, but we’ll experience new computing capabilities so compelling that we find them indispensible. For example, eyewear computers can record our lives, and enable us to summon any relevant conversation or incident from our past. With eyewear computers, we can truly share experiences in real time, transporting ourselves to the perspective of someone on a ski slope, or in a night club, Wimbledon match, or the International Space Station. 



Just as Terminator did in the movie, we will air-click on actual things we see to interact with, investigate, or purchase. We’ll integrate facial recognition and CRM for background data on everyone we meet. When we travel abroad, signs will appear to us in English, and when someone is speaking to us, we can simply turn on English subtitles.


 A new generation of games will be more immersive and engaging than ever before.

Five years from today, when smartphone sales are in decline, we will ask ourselves: Remember when we used to spend our days looking down at those little screens?




Sensationalizing Cyber Surveillance

As we adapt our laws to technology, we struggle to strike a balance between national security and privacy. As we do, we tend to thrash back and forth between extreme policies such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1996 criminalizing researchers and hackers to the Patriot Act of 2001, criminalizing everyone else!

If we begin with first principles, I'd guess that as a society most of us would find the following to be a reasonable starting point for resolving this issue: in light of threats from criminals, terrorists and geopolitical rivals, our government agencies should conduct whatever surveillance they need to, so long as they do not violate our constitutional rights in any way. Chipping away at the Constitution is far more dangerous to us as a precedent than any external enemy. But once we establish that imperative, we want the FBI and NSA to do their jobs as well as they can, with all the tools at their disposal.

Unfortunately, many journalists, bloggers and other pundits prefer to stoke the fires of fear. Conspiracy theories, after all, are a time-proven way to increase clicks, grow one's twitter following, and sell books. Yesterday's report of Verizon's compliance with a court order to provide meta-data on phone calls, and today's allegations that NSA's PRISM program has had free rein on the data stores of the largest internet services, have presented just such a golden opportunity (e.g. BIG BROTHER IS HERE), and now the floodgates are open!

PRISM raises tough questions about the need for transparency in our government agencies, but it is unproductive to be reactionary and polarizing, since these qualities mask the best solutions. And there probably has never been a more prolific source of security and privacy solutions than my friend Bruce Schneier, whom I've backed as an entrepreneur, whose books I've read more than once, and whose words have guided me as an investor. But even Bruce slipped into sensationalism when he posted an article today on The Atlantic titled What We Don't Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Know.

Bruce compels the reader that we need better disclosure, but I believe he goes a bit too far in several respects. "The NSA received...everything except the voice content: who called who [sic], where they were, how long the call lasted," writes Bruce. But that seems inaccurate, since the NSA has not received any personally identifiable information of the callers. For that, they need a court order.

"We know [the FBI] can collect a wide array of personal data from the Internet without a warrant," but so can Google and thousands of other internet companies who track everything we do; Continue reading "Sensationalizing Cyber Surveillance"