Defense Secretary Carter: Tech should help keep country safe

As big U.S. technology companies butt heads with the government over privacy, Defense Secretary Ash Carter contended that the sides need to cooperate to boost national cybersecurity.

Apple has fought a court order to make software that would allow the FBI to access data on a phone used by one of the shooters in last year's San Bernardino, California, attack. Many Silicon Valley firms have backed Apple, fearing the move could compromise security and set a precedent for broader FBI access.

United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

Carter did not directly address the Apple case. However, he said that if companies "familiarize themselves" with the national security mission they can recognize the importance of cooperating with the government.

"The only way we're going to have data security of the kind that we all need, and that the Department of Defense very, very much needs, is in cooperation together. I'm trying to build bridges between Washington and Silicon Valley," Carter said Wednesday at the RSA Conference in San Francisco.

He noted that attending the conference and interacting with the technology community is a crucial step. Carter also touted a new Pentagon advisory board, headed by Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, that will aim to bring best Silicon Valley practices to the Defense Department.

Schmidt will select the 12-member panel, which will advise the Pentagon on product development and data analysis, among other topics.

"He's willing to spend his time helping us do what we're charged to do," Carter said of Schmidt.

Carter contended that, despite qualms with the government, U.S. technology companies need to recognize that the country supports stability, innovation and intellectual property.

CNBC's Eamon Javers contributed to this story.