Homeland Security headed to Silicon Valley

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is preparing to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley in a bid to improve strained relationships with technology companies.

The move by the DHS also signals the federal government’s desire to recruit top tech talent at a time of rising hacking threats.

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“We want to strengthen critical relationships in Silicon Valley and ensure that the government and the private sector benefit from each other’s research and development,” Secretary Jeh Johnson told the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

“And we want to convince some of the talented workforce here in Silicon Valley to come to Washington.”

The opening of the California satellite office will be an unprecedented move for the DHS, which has struggled to repair ties with technology firms after disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed a variety of government surveillance programs.

Lawmakers have also complained that the government and military are not doing enough to ensure they hire the best tech and cyber minds on the market.

Johnson’s appearance at the conference was focused on pitching the idea that Silicon Valley and the government can work as partners, sharing both information and personnel.

“My message to you today is this: government does not have all the answers or all the talent,” he said. 

“Cybersecurity must be a partnership between government and the private sector. We need each other, and we must work together. There are things government can do for you, and there are things we need you to do for us.”

The speech took place as the House is preparing to vote on two cybersecurity measures this week designed to promote threat-sharing between the government and the private sector.

The DHS is very likely to be at the center of those information exchanges, if they are enacted.

To many observers, Silicon Valley and the federal government still appear far apart on most issues.

Companies such as Facebook and Google have been critical of government surveillance programs and have supported legislation that would limit their reach.

In a symbol of the disconnect, the CEOs of Google, Yahoo and Facebook declined invitations to attend President Obama’s tech summit at Stanford University in February.

Johnson highlighted one area of disagreement Tuesday when he argued that strong encryption can limit the DHS’s ability to protect public safety.

“The current course we are on, toward deeper and deeper encryption in response to the demands of the marketplace, is one that presents real challenges for those in law enforcement and national security,” he said.

“In fact, encryption is making it harder for your government to find criminal activity, and potential terrorist activity.”