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Pentagon Faces Uphill Battle in Restoring Ties With Tech Industry

FILE - Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 16, 2015.
FILE - Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, April 16, 2015.

The Pentagon faces a significant challenge in trying to gain the trust of some American security firms, which at least publicly remain skeptical of U.S. spying activities following the intelligence leaks by ex-security contractor Edward Snowden.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter aims to begin rebuilding some of that confidence as he embarks on a three-day visit to California's Silicon Valley, which is home to some of the largest high-tech corporations and start-up companies.

The Pentagon chief will give a much-anticipated address Thursday at Stanford University during which he is expected to appeal to the tech industry to work closer with the federal government in the cyber security field.

Among the notable initiatives Carter is expected to unveil is the creation of a permanent Defense Department outreach center aimed at "scouting emerging and breakthrough technologies," according to a defense official.

The center, called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, will be staffed by what officials say is an elite group of active duty and civilian personnel who will try to recruit some of the industry's top technological minds.

Carter acknowledged the job of reaching out to the tech community has been made more difficult by Snowden's leaks of secret intelligence documents, which have exposed numerous domestic and international surveillance operations.

"Are there suspicions? Are there issues that arose...obviously in the case of the Snowden case? No question about it," Carter told reporters Wednesday while traveling to California.

Restoring ties with tech companies will be a "big challenge" for Carter, according to Rob Pritchard, a cyber security specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, who spoke with VOA on Thursday.

"He has to find a way to get them to cooperate whilst allowing them to communicate to their customers that their data is still secure and safe. And I think that's going to be quite difficult," says Pritchard.

He says U.S. technology companies will have a particularly difficult time reassuring their customers who live overseas, and therefore have less privacy protections than American citizens, under U.S. law.

"I think it is quite a big challenge, although I think it's notable that presumably these tech companies did work with the NSA or the FBI prior to the Snowden leaks, so I'm not really clear if they're taking a moral stance or it's because of the damage to their bottom line," Pritchard said.

Tobias Feakin, a cyber security expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, tells VOA he also thinks "market forces" have helped push companies to publicly side with their customers who are demanding more privacy.

"There's certainly a shift in many U.S. companies trying to distance themselves somewhat from U.S. government security architectures. Because they've taken a hit on share price and they're trying to respond to a customer base who are increasingly wary," Feakin said.

Another obstacle, according to Defense Secretary Carter's comments on Wednesday, is the Pentagon's perceived lack of "coolness" among young professionals.

So how can the U.S. military become more trendy for up-and-coming tech minds? One way is by undertaking a rebranding process that does a better job of highlighting the unique opportunities military jobs provide.

"There is no doubting the U.S. military will be on the absolute cutting edge of technology developments of some programs that some individuals can get involved in and will be of distinct interest who have an interest in national security issues," says Feakin.

But trying to be cool will only go so far in attracting top talent, as long as the salaries offered by the U.S. government remain relatively low, compared to other opportunities in the private sector.

"If they're competing in Silicon Valley, they simply can't compete from a financial point of view, in terms of encouraging individuals into the military to work on these kinds of programs and then sustaining that in the longer term," Feakin says.

Carter is expected to lay out ways to deal with these concerns and others in the new Pentagon cybersecurity strategy that is to be unveiled Thursday. It will be the first time the Defense Department has publicly released its strategy since 2011.

Officials have said the document will be more transparent than the previous version regarding the government's cyber activities - a move that is considered to be another step toward regaining the trust of those still suspicious about its programs.