Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'

Apparently, suggesting government should respond to the will of the people can get you laughed at nowadays.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

June 16, 2014

6 Min Read
Evernote CEO: Govt. Surveillance Will Be 'Solved'

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 [email protected].

Wearables and the Internet of Things will change how software is written. Apps will become much less important. "You don't have time to think about that," he said. "You don't have the time or the screen real estate or the patience to decide what app you're going to use. Everything just needs to work automatically." Libin continued:

"Evernote should always be in the background examining what you're doing and what you're thinking about and who you're doing it with. Evernote should offer the information needed to enhance activities and experiences in realtime, before the user even has a chance to think about it,

I basically want to have a Spidey-sense, but at higher resolution. Instead of having a vague feeling something is going to happen, I just want to know ambiently what's going on, what I can do about it, how I can be smarter. And that's going to happen sooner than people think.

We're not trying to make something that's smarter than you. We're trying to make something where you plus the machine is much smarter than you would be by yourself."

Libin discussed a statement by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who said the future of chess wasn't computers playing humans but rather teams of humans and computers playing each other. (This was after Kasparov said in the 1980s that a computer would never beat a grandmaster, and was then beaten by a computer, IBM's Deep Blue.)

Libin said, "The insight is that if you add a computer you make the game more human. You eliminate stupid mistakes. The game is now elevated to a completely human level where you're playing completely strategically and psychologically."

Getting people's trust to listen in on their activity will be a tough challenge, Libin said. "There's no short answer. We have to earn and keep people's trust for the next 100 years." Libin often speaks of his goal of making Evernote a "hundred year company."

That means reacting properly to security errors."Keeping that trust, you have to overreact," Libin said. Evernote detected a break-in about a year and a half ago, and forced all its customers to reset their passwords. "We didn't ask people to reset their passwords," he said.

"Nobody can promise everything is going to go smooth, but the key is you have to react correctly," he said.

Last week following Libin's talk, Evernote was one of several web companies struck by a DDoS attack. Evernote kept users informed on its Twitter feed.

"I think people are more willing to trust Evernote with that kind of data because our whole business model is not to make money off your data. We make money directly from you when you pay us to give you the product," Libin said.

— 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 [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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