I read an article last week that described how revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying activities were hurting the business prospects of U.S. tech companies. The article reminded me of an encounter I had with the NSA in the early 1990s. I was the president of Telecom Analysis Systems, a telecommunications test equipment company I had started several years earlier with colleagues Steve Moore and Charles Simmons. Our company was an up and coming supplier to many telecommunications equipment manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad. One day, I received a phone call from a woman who said she was with the National Security Agency (NSA). She said she wanted to meet with me, and of course I said yes. A few days later, at the appointed time, she arrived at our Eatontown, New Jersey headquarters. My assistant escorted the visitor to my office.
I sat behind my desk and offered my NSA visitor the chair on the other side. She proceeded to tell me about the NSA’s mission, which was to collect signals intelligence from entities outside the U.S. She outlined some of the agency’s activities in very general terms, and my interest was piqued, to say the least. I wondered why someone claiming to be with NSA was calling on me, the CEO of a comparatively small manufacturer of communications test equipment. In those days, our equipment was mainly used to test the performance of modems and fax machines, and was being sold to most major manufacturers around the world. After several minutes of general presentation, the visitor got to the point: she wanted to know if my company would be willing to cooperate with the NSA’s work. She mentioned that, for instance, the NSA might want to implant some sort of surveillance device inside our equipment before shipment to a customer.
I was dumbfounded, and a little intimidated. I knew our equipment was being used by security agencies to test their signal processing capabilities, but I had never expected a request to actively participate in some sort of spying activity. I tried to remain calm, and I asked the visitor a few questions to determine the scope of what I was being asked to do. Then I said I would think about the request and get back to her. She thanked me for my time and left me with a few monographs about overseas business activity. Meeting over.
Immediately after the encounter, I huddled with my co-founders Steve and Charles. I informed them of the meeting and the request. I told them I wasn’t sure if the request implied some immediate need on the part of NSA, or even if the visitor was really affiliated with the agency. The request presented a real dilemma. On the one hand, if our government needed our help, could I really refuse? After all, the visitor made it clear that NSA’s mission was to collect intelligence on foreign entities, not Americans. On the other hand, I felt I might be violating our customers’ trust if I allowed some kind of surveillance gear to be planted inside our equipment.
Talking the matter through with Steve and Charles helped. We agreed that I needed to get more information. I wasn’t ready to make such an important commitment based solely on the request of a single, seemingly low-level, NSA representative. First, I did a bit of diligence to determine that the visitor was (probably) really representing NSA. Then, when she called to follow up, I indicated that I might be willing to cooperate, but only if I could meet directly with someone at NSA headquarters who could give me more information about her request and help me understand its importance. The visitor said she would work on it.
In the final analysis, no meeting at NSA headquarters was ever arranged. I concluded that the request wasn’t important enough to be escalated. I felt we had taken the right approach to vetting the request, though. On the one hand, we didn’t take lightly the idea of violating our customers’ trust. On the other hand, we were prepared to help our government if an important national interest had been at stake.
Given the dilemma presented to me, I can only imagine how executives at places like Google and Verizon must be feeling these days.