Hey Silicon Valley, John Kerry Wants You to Help Save the World


When the Secretary of State pitches Silicon Valley, he’s looking for more than just series-A capital. John Kerry’s looking for help—for technological innovations that could help win the online war with extremist groups like ISIS, find a path between privacy for US citizens (and dissidents abroad) and unbreakable encryption available to terrorists, and maybe even provide energy without damaging Earth’s climate or global economies.

So, you know, that’s a pretty big job. Kerry joined WIRED’s head of editorial Robert Capps and deputy editor Adam Rogers for an interview in Silicon Valley for the first episode of our new podcast series, WIRED Dot Gov. Each episode will be a conversation with key players in government and tech. You know, the people who are shaping the WIRED world … and we’re starting with a guy who’s traveled all over it.

We’ll be posting each episode of WIRED Dot Gov right here on WIRED.com, or you can subscribe to the WIRED Radio feed in iTunes, or wherever you get podcasts, to hear these and all the other great podcasts we make. Stay tuned. You can read the transcript of our interview with Secretary Kerry below.


Robert Capps: Because we are here in Silicon Valley and we are talking about Silicon Valley issues, I’m curious to hear what things you think, right now, are the most important things that Silicon Valley can or should be helping our federal government with. Particularly in terms of what you do at the State department, and in terms of international relations, dealing with allies and others. So, what things do you most want from Silicon Valley?

John Kerry: Partnership. Partnership; engagement.

First of all, thank you. It’s a privilege to spend a few minutes with you and I’m glad to have a chance to share thoughts about Silicon Valley and the State department and what we are trying to do. Obviously, this is the center of cutting edge thinking, the best innovation, the best application of technology to solving problems anywhere in the world. And what we have discovered over the course of time, through some innovative efforts that were actually pioneered by a couple of other entities of government, like the Commerce department and some others, is that there are potential partnerships.

There’s a synergy between the technology, innovative, creative push of this Valley with the problem-solving that we need to do on a global basis. An example: this morning I met with a bunch of Stanford kids who are involved in a program, a class in which they are getting credit. They’re actually working through challenges that have been created by the State department for them, to figure out how they can apply technology in order to try to help meet those challenges, solve the problems. Whether it is human trafficking or the potential of collision in space with space garbage or countering violent extremism—which are three examples amongst several.

We’re working on each of those things right now in ways where we believe that this Valley has the ability, on most occasions, to make money while doing good, but also just to do good. To make the problems go away. That’s a partnership that is really critical because the biggest disruptor in the world today, changing so much of what is happening, is the digital march. The incredible transformation. We want to apply it as constructively as we can to help solve some of the problems that come with that transformation. They are a part of our foreign policy matrix.

Adam Rogers: So when you talk to a company that’s working in Silicon Valley, it strikes me that some of the things that the State department might hope for are almost contrary to what the Silicon Valley companies are set up to do. Figuring out how to keep certain governments from being able to use technologies, but allow their populations to use them, for example. To do things that where Silicon Valley’s companies might be set up to extend communications to everybody as far as possible and build audience, the State department would not want those people to have access to that information.

Look, let’s be honest with each other. As I’m sure you want us to be. I used to be Chairman of the Telecommunication Sub-Committee. We re-wrote the Communications law of our country back in 1996, at a moment when data transmission and information management was just bursting on the scene. So I’ve watched this progression for a long period of time. The fact is what has been created is this stunning tool, disrupting but also at the same time constructing and transforming the world. So the flow of information is critical, keeping the internet neutral, keeping it free and open and open-architecture, all of these things have been part of our discussion for a long period of time.

If it’s going to be a continuing flow of information accessible to everybody, then that runs counter to this notion that we don’t want people to have certain things because everything is available. I mean, everything is available and we know that. The restraints that we are seeking to put into place are always contested and always controversial, but I think everybody has learned over the last years. I think the government has learned, and I think the digital world has learned, that if we are going to be safe in this new world that we are exploring, we are going to have to find common ground on certain measures that could protect people.

That is always going to be a slight tension. But we have recently arrived at a privacy shield agreement in Europe to replace the safe harbor agreement, which was difficult but we reached agreement. So that personal and private information could be protected. But there will be rules of the road with respect to how we respond to certain things. Encryption is a challenge nowadays. There’s lots of challenges that will rise with this fundamental preset, which I’m particularly committed to, and I think the Obama administration has been committed to, which is a free, open architecture that is not controlled by the government and where people have access. But there’s always going to be a tension with law enforcement, security, with counter terrorism and we’ve been able to work that out I think pretty effectively thus far.

Capps: Can we drill into that, specifically on encryption? We love it in some countries around the world when they are able to talk privately, securely, apart from the oppressive regimes that might want to prosecute dissidence. Yet we are very afraid of having encryption at home. We see the government pushing for backdoors, people to unlock iPhones, and having these systems that makes, Silicon Valley argues, technology less safe for everyone. And that seems like a very hard problem to crack.

I don’t think so. In the end, I don’t think it is going to be a hard problem to crack. I mean I can remember where we were having great debates about opt-in and opt-out. You know, pretty simple stuff now as we think back, but it makes a big difference as to what happens and we found a way forward. We will find a way forward here.

We support encryption. Encryption is a legitimate and important asset for companies, individuals, governments, and private individuals to be able to have a right of access to, but we are not supporting back doors. We are not looking for back doors. That is not the policy of the government, but on occasion there will be a question mark about national security and whether or not there is a level of cooperation under certain circumstances with probable cause, with the showing of urgency.

I mean, if I came to Google or somebody out here and said hey, we have really hard information—and here it is—that there is a nuclear bomb that has been placed in the center of New York City. We have 48 hours to find it, and here’s probable cause that indicates that this telephone might be able to do it, would you say no?

Rogers: I mean, I’m not in the spot to make that call. I’m a journalist, I don’t know.

See? You’re ducking the question. We can’t duck. There have to be ways, with legitimate standards, with an understanding of common sense, to work it through. That is different from a generic backdoor that is opened, and people have the sense of the invasion of their privacy. We all want our privacy protected. And we value that here in the United States just as much as they do in Europe and elsewhere. We found ways to make sure we are protecting it.

Rogers: Could you see the position that it puts a Silicon Valley company in? When do I make this decision, how do I allow it? Especially because they are built to, as I just did, duck that question completely.

There probably isn’t a general rule—certainly no legislation, I don’t think, and nobody is recommending legislation. But there has to be a level of common sense applied to this, and I think that’s all the government is looking for.

Capps: On a related note, but shifting gears slightly, I wanted to talk about ISIS. Particularly ISIS’s use of social media to spread its message and pathology. It occurs to me that is one area where you might want some help from Silicon Valley, to deal particularly with the social strategies of ISIS.

Well, we don’t only want help, we are getting help and we really appreciate it. We had a big meeting out here in January of this year. President Obama was out here, the Deputy Secretary of the State Department was out here. I was traveling at the time. I wanted to be here, but I came subsequently and we held meetings out here I think in April and June and so forth. We have been trying to build a relationship with the community, in order to be able to respond to the appeal of ISIS on the social media for recruits and for its ideology and for spreading its venom around the world. Which a lot of people don’t know is venom, when all they do is go to a site and it looks pretty glorious and it’s a bunch of lies.

That’s one of the dangers of today. Lies that spread around the world just as fast as truth. So, we have to be able to help people understand and discern the difference between the two. Well, in the case of the January meeting, it has produced something called the Global Engagement Center at the State Department. We are working with countries to create a center in that country—like Emirates for instance—where it is staffed by local, indigenous population who have the skill set to be able to speak to people and respond in ways that we are not capable of responding.

We began with more of global kind of approach: America is going to answer. We found we are not the right validators of this counter narrative, but local people in any particular country are. And so we are building that capacity on the internet to be able to respond to the lies, propaganda, and disinformation, and it’s proving quite successful. We are trying to grow that significantly, so that’s an example where the community can be particularly helpful and creative. Some entities have responded by helping to remove countless numbers of terrorists’ accounts from their particular platform, and this has been extremely helpful.

Rogers: There are also projects like Google’s project Jigsaw that attempts to get in front of the kind of searches that might lead somebody to encountering extremists information online or an extremist website. What you would see as the metrics for success there with these kind of efforts?

Less money, less recruits. And we know there are less recruits because we have have a foreign fighters program where we are dealing at airports, entry checkpoints, and other things.

Rogers: You can see if people are headed to places where they would get their training.

Not only that, but we also pick it up through our intel, and we know that they are squeezed. We know that there are less people coming in. We know they have changed their modus operandi now, as a consequence of the pressure we have been able to put on them. We will, I’m confident, win a territorial victory over ISIL-Iraq in the next, let’s just say the next year. We are going to, sooner possibly in certain ways that will be perceptible to people. There’s enormous pressure being put on ISIL in Iraq and Syria today. Now that doesn’t mean that some people aren’t going to be able to escape somewhere and claim on the internet, “wow we are still alive and well,” but they are not going to be alive and well. They will be alive, but not well. And in many cases, not alive for that long, because we are going to continue just as we did Osama Bin Laden to go after these people until they are not a threat to the United States or our friends or allies.

Rogers: But that does direct them even further to a social media strategy that has people radicalized without ever having contact.

Yeah, but that’s diminishing. The narrative has changed. I mean, they used to claim the caliphate that had its great base, that it was gaining territory and had a bunch of money to spend and a government to run. And all of a sudden that’s shrinking and disappearing and they don’t hold the land. They haven’t gained one piece of territory since May of last year. Of last year. They are shrinking in their revenue, their presence and their hold on these communities and as everybody knows we are focused on Mosul and Iraq. We are focused in Raqqa and other places in Syria.

So yes. People have access to the internet. I mean, if you want us to start a new system where we deny access because you have to go through a total background check, I don’t people would be very happy, right? So that’s not happening here. So people have access to it, but that’s exactly why we are looking for both the counter-narrative as well as the assistance from folks to check their own platform a little bit to make sure that it isn’t being misused. And to cancel accounts of a known terrorist or people who are actually abusing it.

Capps: I was thinking specifically about Google Jigsaw—as you invite large Silicon Valley companies in or ask them to help, we can all sort of agree on certain parameters of doing away with ISIS. But is there a line or point that you worry about inviting some of these companies to start to become state-level actors? Like, they start to make decisions about when to keep Twitter up during revolution.

Not in the least. They are not state actors. They will never be state actors. That is antithetical to the ethos of the internet, of the region, of their own understanding of their own role and it is certainly antithetical to what the Obama administration, the President, or I would ask people to do. We are simply asking them to be good citizens, good corporate citizens. And being a good corporate citizen requires an element of corporate responsibility, of civic responsibility.

If you have a platform and you know it is being used by terrorists, it’s up to you to decide. We are not telling you what to do, but they are making decisions by themselves that that’s not a good thing, and that’s not what they want to be known for. So I don’t think there is any collision here whatsoever. None whatsoever. As long we are not passing legislation that starts to run the show. And we are not. I think we’ve very successfully resisted those urges over the course of the twenty-plus years now this has been developing.

Capps: That gives us the opportunity to segue a little bit into cybersecurity, which I hoped to talk about. I think that obviously one of the biggest questions there is the intelligence services now saying that it was Russia that hacked the DNC. At what point, with these kind of problems, do you start looking at sanctions for Russia? Do you start thinking about how we are going to respond to state-level cyber attacks against us?

Well, the decision to respond has been made long ago. Now that response will come in ways, and with the timing of the President, and it may not be visible to you. So, there’s no issue of about just sitting there being hacked and not taking some steps in dealing with it.

I mean there’s a bunch of questions associated with this. This is dangerous stuff. A lot of countries are doing it. A massive number of individuals are doing it. And it has very, very serious implications, which require a level of responsibility and responsible actions by the platform creators and owners themselves. Nobody is talking about shutting them down. Nobody is talking about trying to be absolutely prescriptive in exactly in A, B, C and D what has to be done. There is an effort to encourage to engage the community to get them to decide what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. And that’s the best way to approach it.

But there is a responsibility, by all of these companies, to make sure their product is as safe as possible, as secure as possible. And we’ve seen instances: we’ve seen the hacking the movie studios, we’ve seen the hacking of government entities, we’ve seen the hacking of businesses. What people don’t hear about everyday are the number of American businesses that get cyber attacked. You don’t hear about money that may have been usurped from the bank or proprietary secrets that have been stolen from a defense-oriented company of some kind. So, these are serious challenges of this particular architecture, and it’s absolutely essential that the folks out here are working day and night on this. People are constantly trying to develop greater and greater security, but it’s essential because more and more of our society everywhere is dependent on the digital world, on cyberspace.

So if you can open the dam or you can divert a train or you can invade the water facilities of New York or Los Angeles, you get into the financial structure of the world. There’s some great dangers there. Let me just summarize it that way. Real dangers. And that’s why cyberwarfare writ large has become an increasing concern of all of us engaged in governance and countries are very, very focused on how to protect themselves against this particular menace.

Rogers: What I wonder is when that moves from being a matter of companies going after each other internationally, and when that rises to the point of being an issue of diplomacy and defense.

It already is. It’s already happened. It is an issue for diplomacy and defense, right now. We engaged in major diplomacy on this last year with China. We had major negotiations before President Xi came here to Washington. President Xi and Obama arrived in an agreement which set a number of norms and standards, which we agreed to abide by. We have a working group, which has continued to work with China since then. We have been very specific in these efforts and we obviously need to do that with more countries because it’s happening from too many countries and too many different places.

Rogers: So does that happen with Russia now too? Your engagement with your opposite number of Russia—I realize that you have a lot on your plate with that person at this point.

We’ve discussed that absolutely. The danger of this cannot be overstated. We don’t want to go starting down the road. You know, we did arms control for 50 years. We had an arms race where we built more and more nuclear weapons. The last thing we need is a cyberwarfare race. Where we are escalating and escalating with greater and greater danger and level until people realize that there is mutual destruction in this process. So we need to make sure we’re curbing this and acting responsibility, all of us. That’s going to require some intrusion in terms of the agreements that we reached in order what those norms will be and how we will behave. And how we police it.

Capps: I want to make sure we get to talk a little bit about about climate change and Paris.

Rogers: This has been something you have worked on for a great deal and your career with the Paris climate agreement finally get signed, which is awesome. But now I wonder, as you are talking to representatives of other countries about this—what do you say to them? As we ask for other countries to go their parliaments and Congresses, and take steps at least in the short term potentially against their economic best interests, when one of the two candidates running for office now said he would ban that agreement. How do you have that conversation with another country?

Well, it’s harder when you have a candidate running for president who obviously is espousing a different point of view. It makes it harder. It creates a delay. In some countries, people will say, “let’s wait and see what the outcome of the election is before we make a decision.” Fortunately, most countries have leaders who actually understand science. And so, the fact is that we now have so many countries who have signed up to the agreement, we are over the 55 countries and we are over the 55 percent of admissions represented by those countries.

So this agreement is going to come into force in the beginning of November. And that is a monumental accomplishment. It’s huge. Because everybody in the marketplace now understands with clarity that this agreement is going to be enforced. That means that is the path the world is setting out on for the future production of energy for our nation and all of our nations. It is already creating a revolution in terms of energy production. I met this morning with a group of energy CEOs here in the Valley, all of whom are engaged in putting out renewable, sustainable, alternative energy. Particularly solar was represented, among others. Wind was represented. And they are trying to do this in Africa, they are trying to do distributive power and get it out into communities that have no electricity. Which is critical, by the way, to really dealing with the crisis of terrorism. You’ve got to deal with poverty, you’ve got to deal with these young people who have no future. If you don’t have electricity in the country, it’s hard to provide jobs. Hard to educate people and so forth.

People here in America need to see the connection of what we choose to do in terms of energy or other kinds of things with respect to the opportunities that are available to people in other countries. But in terms of energy policy now, the fact is it is absolutely uncontested by any reasonable standard of accounting. If you make a choice for alternative renewable energy, it is not in fact more expensive in the long run. Because if you are doing coal-fired power plants for instance, which California doesn’t do now, but in the East it is still an issue, your costs are going to be much greater in the long run. You are going to have health concerns, you are going to have CO2 emission, acidification of the ocean, you are going to have problems with the quality of air, you are going to have environmentally-induced asthma for kids, which costs billions every year. I mean there are all kinds of costs to fossil fuel-burning that do not get accounted for in the context of normal business accounting, and it doesn’t make sense.

So when they tell you, “wow, we have to do coal because coal is only three cents a kilowatt hour,” it’s not true. Coal is much more expensive than the now three cents of solar, by the way. As the accounting changes, the entire marketplace is going to change. Last year, we had a record $358 billion invested in the energy sector: new energy, alternative energy, renewable energy, gas, gasification, so forth. So we are on a different course here, and I’m very confident that we’ve created a construct which could help solve the problem, if people continue down that path. If they don’t we’re in trouble.

Rogers: So, the fact that there is a business case for it now, as well as so many other signatories, does that take some of the heat off whoever the president is?

I think it will. I think in the end, it will. The economics have changed significantly enough that it will have an impact.

Rogers: I know we are nearing the end, but since I started us talking about politics a little bit I won’t insult you by asking who you are supporting in the presidential election because I know that’s not cool.

I’m not allowed to be public about it.

Rogers: But, you are one of the few human beings on Earth who’s actually run for president of the United States. When you did, they came at you really hard. At the time, that seemed like political nuclear war. Now, we’re in an election where it seems like that is the norm. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about whether you can wind that back, or how it feels to be in the midst of something like that yourself?

No, it’s hard to go back, and hard to tap into that context of what’s happening right now. I mean it was ugly, and it was unfair and we didn’t respond to it adequately, and we should have done more. I’ll tell you what: I watched [the second debate] as everybody did or a lot of people did. And I was really dismayed and I was just sad watching it, to be honest with you, for our country. And I will tell you as Secretary of State, who has to go out and talk to other people about their governance, it’s pretty hard to sit there and say, “hey you really ought to try our democracy and be like us,” when you see what’s going on. It is driven by money and a lot of different things.

So we have a lot of fixing to do here in the United States. We’ve got some work to do to restore the bona fides. No, the bona fides are there. To make us legitimate validators of those bona fides. To be able to take our values and interests out to the rest of the world. We have to practice a little better ourselves.

Rogers: That’s forward-looking, I think. Turned that into a positive. I appreciate it.

Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.

Recommended for you

Leave a Reply