Department of Homeland Security hopes to influence tech companies with new Silicon Valley office

April 22, 2015, 9:54 PM UTC
Photograph by Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security is setting up shop in Silicon Valley in a bid to improve relations between tech companies and the government, spread the government’s ideology on cybersecurity throughout the tech industry, and recruit top talent that might otherwise head to the private sector.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson laid out the department’s plans to open a satellite office on Tuesday during the annual RSA Conference on cybersecurity. His remarks underscored the notion that the DHS now considers its role in cybersecurity as important as its efforts in counterterrorism.

The announcement comes at a time when major technology companies like Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Yahoo (YHOO) have made public their displeasure with what they feel are obtrusive data-collection methods used by the government to capture user information and communications in the name of national security.

Clearly, the DHS is trying to worm its way into Silicon Valley and patch things up with tech companies in the area who don’t see eye to eye with the government on key issues like data-collection techniques and encryption—two areas that the government would like businesses to agree with.

Johnson spelled out the department’s feelings on encryption—a type of technology that can scramble data so that unintended recipients are unable to see sensitive information or communications—and said while he understands that the technology plays an important role in maintaining privacy, it also undermines the ability of federal law enforcement to adequately do its job.

“Our inability to access encrypted information poses public safety challenges,” said Johnson in a prepared speech. “In fact, encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity, and potential terrorist activity.”

The secretary’s statements seem to contrast with the actions of tech companies like Yahoo and Google who have been busy rolling out encryption features for their email services over the past year. Additionally, many encryption-centric startups in Silicon Valley like Veradocs (now known as Vera as of mid-April) and CipherCloud have recently been scoring millions of dollars in funding from investors, capitalizing on the corporate sector’s fear of losing sensitive information in light of major data breaches that have reached national attention.

The DHS is also trying to persuade Silicon Valley companies to participate in a federally sanctioned data-sharing hub called the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which President Obama has supported as a way for both companies and government agencies like the FBI to exchange security related information in order to prevent cyber attacks.

Two cybersecurity bills, the National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act and the Protecting Cyber Networks measure, have recently been created to essentially bolster the idea of the public and private sector sharing security information with each other. The bills basically strengthen the government’s data-sharing hub and would offer incentives to companies to participate in the form of legal protections from potential lawsuits over privacy concerns. The National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement act was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday and the Protecting Cyber Networks measure is expected to be passed later this week.

Still, the DHS has its work cut out for it if it wants to convince Silicon Valley companies to jump on its security bandwagon, regardless if it has a new office in the area or not.

Technology companies have let it be known that they don’t want to overly share information with government agencies, regardless of cybersecurity concerns. Social networking giant Facebook recently unveiled its own security data sharing hub called ThreatExchange that companies like Microsoft, Twitter (TWTR) , and Netflix have all signed up on sans government participation.

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