TechCrunch Disrupt: U.S. Defense Secretary Seeks Fresh Start with Silicon Valley Techies

Ash Carter reaches out to the tech industry with an open ear for feedback, a push for collaboration and an influx of investment dollars for defense solutions.

by / September 13, 2016
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Tech Crunch

SAN FRANCISCO — In a visit to Tech Crunch Disrupt on Tuesday, Sept. 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that when it comes to IT, the Defense Department (DoD) hopes to accomplish three things: to rebuild trust with Silicon Valley, to invest in its cutting-edge solutions, and to harness the valley’s copious amounts of talent for national security projects.

At the event, Carter opened with an invitation to the industry to re-establish relationships that might have frayed in past years, and to secure new ones within the framework of defense initiatives, programs and public-private partnerships. Carter did not attempt to sidestep recent controversies around National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and Apple’s refusal to build government backdoors into its encryption, and said that whatever happened next would require open communication on both sides.

"The only way to deal with that [industry mistrust] is to listen carefully and to dialog that and to try to solve problems together,” he said.

For his part, Carter said he has worked to build such bridges by reaching out to industry thought leaders like Jeff Bezos, and through instrumental programs such as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). The program, which is scheduled see more outposts pop up around the country, serves as a network of community R&D hubs to pioneer new military solutions. The successful work at the program’s two locations — Palo Alto, Calif., and Boston — means coordination of additional outposts is expected to happen soon.

"That is the first of several tech hubs here and around the country," he said, "and it’s to create a presence here so people can get to know the problem sets that we’re working on and their importance, and give them a way to connect."

Another example he mentioned is the launch of the DoD's Defense Digital Service that was modeled after the White House’s U.S. Digital Service (USDS). Like its sister organization, the service culls specialized talent from companies like Google and Microsoft for a year or two to think up new methodologies and tools for security. As a physicist with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale, Carter said he can personally relate. When he first began his career in government, he had no inclination to stay for so long — nor any expectation of the reward.

"But somebody gave me a chance,” Carter said. “They said, 'Hey Ash, just give it a try for one year, here’s a really important problem and just give it a try.' And I did. And I got hooked because it brought together the two things that really jazz you up if you’re a person, and particularly a technical person."

These two things, he said, were a direct use of his knowledge and the opportunity to apply it in a place that mattered: “defending our country and our people."

For tech startups, he confirmed that this opening to engage was readily applicable to them as well. The DoD is scouting for startups with technologies that serve U.S. defense and intelligence needs. Like the CIA that launched the not-for-profit venture capital firm In-Q-Tel in 1998, the Defense Department is hunting for entrepreneurs that can offer ready solutions for big data, automation, bioengineering and encryption — a service where the government will invest heavily.

The long-term goal is to create a pipeline for both companies and tech professionals to constantly engage in projects with government.

While making this invitation to the tech community, however, he also had to acknowledge the major trust gaps that have been deepened by citizen surveillance.

On the Justice Department’s conflict with Apple to create backdoors, he said that he wouldn’t pretend that the question was an easy one or that there was a quick solution. But he did say that it would likely require additional dialog, and that each case must be handled individually.

"I don’t think there’s one way," said Carter, "and I don’t think it’s going to be a way that’s invented by government."

On the question of whether President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden before he leaves office, Carter said he would defer such a question to law enforcement, but added that he could not personally accept Snowden’s release of such confidential government documents as a right course of action.

"That is something I can’t condone ...” Carter said. "This did tremendous harm to our security, it did tremendous harm to companies and their competitive situation in the world, and complicated our relations with foreign powers."

Despite such issues, however, he re-emphasized that the path forward was all about meeting one another halfway.

"In order for us to work through this, we’re going to have to work together in partnership,” said Carter. "I think that it’s incredibly important that the community that built, operates, innovates on the Internet, enjoys Internet freedom and values Internet freedom, works with the government."

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.