Light Reading

Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'

Mitch Wagner

SAN FRANCISCO -- MIT Technology Review Digital Summit -- Evernote CEO Phil Libin got laughed at when he said government surveillance could be a solved problem in the next year or two, because government needs to respond to the people's will.

"I actually don't think the government surveillance problem is going to be a major problem," Libin said. "I think that is solvable in the next year or two, just because we should just decide as a society what we want the government to do, and then the government should do that."

The audience during a Q&A with Libin laughed cynically at this point.

"I know that sounds like a crazy West Coast thing," Libin said, as the laughter continued. "I spent seven years of my life doing work for the government, in government systems, in Boston and in DC, and so I know it sounds less realistic there. But that is actually how it works. I think the problem is we don't have a consensus as to what the government ought to be doing. First we have to establish a consensus."

Business data use represents a greater threat to privacy than government surveillance, Libin said. Ad networks are the vectors most exploitable by malware, hackers, and government spying.

Still, data collection has many highly moral uses. For example, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) can use search patterns to accurately track flu epidemics. "That's great, and there's totally a guy at Google working on that. And there's 10,000 people working on the problem of how to get you to click on more ads," Libin said. The advertising business model for data tracking swamps out other, more beneficial applications.

Advertising has more problems than just security and privacy, Libin said.

"I'm biased because I just don't like advertising in general," Libin said. Even so, he said, the advertising business model doesn't scale to mobile, wearable, or the Internet of things.

"Let's say I'm working on my big desktop computer at home," Libin said. "I have a big monitor, and my average session length on my computer at home is two hours. So if I'm sitting there for two hours with two 30-inch monitors, how many pixels a minute am I willing to allocate to advertising? Maybe a little bit.

"But when I'm on my phone, I'm only using it for two minutes at a time, and my screen is only four inches, how much time and pixels am I willing to give to advertising? Almost none, which is why advertising in mobile is really thorny.

"But then when I move from the phone to my eyes, things are getting beamed directly into my retina, and my active engagement time is a second and a half. How much time am I willing to give to advertising? Really; really none at all."

Evernote Corp. 's business model is that revenue comes from individual and corporate subscriptions. "We make money right now. We have this really old-fashioned business model; we only make money from you when you decide to pay us," Libin quipped. Evernote also sells physical products, such as wallets, briefcases, and notebooks, in conjunction with partners.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to

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User Rank: Moderator
6/18/2014 | 3:55:55 PM
Re: This, this, this.
@Joe there's always a bonus but it's not always the good kind...
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 8:34:13 PM
This, this, this.
> Business data use represents a greater threat to privacy than government surveillance

On the whole (though certainly not in every case) this is very true because business data is subject to government surveillance & court orders.  So you have all of the problems of the private sector spying on you -- doing way more than the government would be able to legally do -- PLUS the fact that the government can access this data (as well as hackers and other miscreants via other vulnerabilities).
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 5:42:58 PM
RE: Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'
@danielcawrey, I'm thinking along your lines as well.

Advertising is their business model and I believe they will find a way to "connect-the-dots" with the transition to devices.  They found a way to commercialize the internet, streaming, etc., I share your view that they will find an effective way to advertise with evolving technology.  This is their lifeblood - so they won't stop short of their goals.
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 5:09:46 PM
Re: Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'
I think that technology companies will still be able to figure out this issue of advertising on mobile and wearable devices. There's no question to that in my mind.

Companies like Google and Facebok are not desktop companies anymore. They are all about mobile, because they know that is where the eyeballs are going to be. And I think that means they will figure this advertising issue out. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 2:23:57 PM
RE: Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'
Mitch, interesting!  One wonders where the breakdown is - has the government quit responding or have we quit demanding response?  Maybe both.

At least the Summit should remind us to be vigilant.

Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
6/16/2014 | 2:16:58 PM
Re: Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'
And based on the laughter at Libin's remarks, the audience was skeptical that government is, indeed, responsive by design.
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 12:59:35 PM
Re: Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'
Mitch, interesting perspective.  It sounds as if he knows the systems and what changes those systems.

I believe he is saying that government, by design, has to respond when there is enough public pressure; and his point of our defining acceptable standards of intrusion is a good one.  It probably is true that if we would make a stand on the public's acceptance of government surveillance, it would be influential in the standards and how far government can go.

His point about advertisers makes sense.  They have a single purpose of creating a need for us to buy for their products and services to make money.  There probably is a greater threat to our personal security from the data we create on the commercial side than we recognize. 

We need to be more aware - it sounds as if this MIT Summit was doing that!
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