The NSA Isn’t Evil, It’s Trying To Protect Us, Says PayPal’s Max Levchin

The NSA is designed to protect us from terrorism, so even if it oversteps its bounds, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin says we shouldn’t hate it. That’s diametrically opposed to the sentiment of many in the tech industry, including Michael Arrington who thinks the NSA’s spying doesn’t stop terrorism — it is terrorism.

The argument boils down to America striking a balance between surveillance and what’s sacred. Some stand behind the paraphrased Benjamin Franklin quote “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Others worry that without a strong offense and defense, terrorism will uproot our way of life. Both are valid.

Levchin lays out his views on the NSA, spying, and why we need to take a deep breath in the video below. An excerpt:

There are several things going on in the NSA controversy and since the conversation I had with Charlie [Rose where he said what the NSA is doing is a good thing], more information has come to light, some of which is definitely distasteful.The thing that I disagreed with vs the popular media is that the NSA is broadly classified as evil. I think it’s ridiculous for a citizen of a country that view his government’s duty to protect me, protect all of us from evil, from harm, from terrorists, from foreign powers meaning ill — to classify a body of government that is designed to figure out what might hit us next and prevent it, throwing them into an evil bucket is just thoughtless.

He has a point. What the NSA is doing may be evil, but the organization as a whole isn’t, necessarily. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question why this snooping is necessary, and it doesn’t mean we should protest and demand change, but we shouldn’t blindly hate the NSA.

Levchin went on to try to explain that the government spy agency is made up of hard-working people trying to help their country. He explains from his own experience,

“These people are making $40,000 a year. Not because it’s a path to wealth, it’s not a way to get recognized.

In college I applied to the NSA. I couldn’t get accepted because I wasn’t a citizen yet. I was a crypto-nerd. I was very excited about applying crypto-technology for the good of the country I just came to. The one the recruiter was clear about was ‘even though you’ll get paid peanuts, you’ll never achieve fame as a mathematician because you are not allowed to publish anything.’

So fortunately ( or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) I did not go down that road. I built companies for fun and profit. But people who do go down that road — many of them very talented, smart people  — they do it basically out of a sense of duty to make sure nothing blows up in this very room. I think affording them some respect is a good thing. The fact that they want to break my secure sockets layer bothers me. I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I just think that the debate around the NSA has gotten emotional, frequently information-free, and at times, just belligerent for no reason.”

It may be tough to stow our anger. I’ve never felt more distrust in my government than I do now. Dammit I’m mad and something must be done! But taking a more thoughtful, discerning stance on the issue is critical to us fixing things. Indiscriminate hate doesn’t help. We should consider focusing our rage on exorcising the devil practices, rather than demonizing the whole organization that carries them out.

For more on Levchin’s leadership advice, lessons learned from PayPal, and his new startup Glow, which wants to get you pregnant, check out the whole video of his Disrupt talk below:

Backstage Interview