Obama Wants Silicon Valley's Help to Fight Terror Online

Updated on
Obama: We Will Hunt Down Plotters
  • President calls on tech firms to work with law enforcement
  • U.S. concerned encryption, social media are used by extremists

President Barack Obama asked Silicon Valley firms to work with U.S. law enforcement authorities to prevent terrorists from using social media and encryption technologies, in a speech intended to reassure Americans rattled by attacks in Paris and California.

“I will urge high tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorist leaders to use technology to escape from justice,” Obama said in a televised address Sunday from the Oval Office.

Obama spoke less than a week after two attackers, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a social services center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and injuring 21. Malik posted a pledge of allegiance to the leader of Islamic State on a Facebook page she controlled at about the time of the attack, law enforcement authorities said. U.S. technology companies say they already try to police their services for terrorist activity, but are wary of violating free-speech rights or providing governments back-door access to their data.

The Obama administration has already opened talks on the matter with technology companies, according to an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“As the Internet erases the distance between countries,” Obama said on Sunday, there are “growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers.”

Encrypted Communications

The White House has expressed concern to the firms that emerging technologies, particularly encrypted communication systems that deny law enforcement the ability to monitor communications, could create a “dark space” for terrorists, the administration official said. The administration is also concerned that extremists may cross the line on social media from free expression into plotting attacks, the person said.

The official didn’t say which companies the White House had contacted.

The White House is raising its concerns with Silicon Valley after reports that terrorists may have used encrypted technology to coordinate and plan attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people. Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, has published a 34-page manual for followers on avoiding detection as they communicate on the Internet, according to the Combating Terrorism Center, an independent research group at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The document suggests using encrypted tools including Apple Inc.’s FaceTime and iMessage rather than regular text messaging.

‘Back Doors’

The official said the White House is not reconsidering a decision in October not to seek legislation requiring technology firms to create “back doors” for the government to access encrypted communications. Top technology firms including Apple, Google Inc., and Microsoft Inc. have said building in keys for government access could create vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit. And, they argue, providing access for Western governments like the U.S. and the U.K. would make it difficult to deny similar requests from China.

The technology companies also have a business concern: Firms fear they could lose out to competitors overseas who would market technologies that don’t allow for government surveillance.

Political Ties

The issue is a difficult one politically for Obama, who has raised money aggressively in Silicon Valley and whose electoral coalition includes millennials who, surveys show, oppose government surveillance of Internet activities. Facebook Inc. chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo! Inc. chief executive officer Marissa Mayer have hosted fundraisers for the president. A number of Obama officials have left the White House for high-profile jobs at technology firms, including former press secretary Jay Carney, who now leads communications for Amazon.com Inc., and former campaign manager David Plouffe, now an adviser to Uber Technologies Inc.

Silicon Valley firms already have some policies to respond to the use of their technologies by terrorists or their sympathizers.

Trust and Safety

Twitter Inc. has a trust and safety team that responds to reports of illegal behavior, blocking or suspending accounts. Facebook says it doesn’t allow people to celebrate acts of terror or promote terrorism on its site, and that it works “‘aggressively” to block extremists from using the social network, a spokesperson said. YouTube has policies aimed at keeping content from its site that encourages violence -- for example, bomb-making instructions. The site encourages users to flag content that may violate its standards.

Those precautions aren’t seamless.

Facebook, with more than 1.5 billion users, mostly removes posts flagged by users. It didn’t take down Malik’s profile, with a post praising Islamic State, until it was discovered hours after the San Bernardino shooting.

And any accounts blocked on Twitter or Facebook can be remade under a new e-mail address. The companies can’t simply block keywords, for fear of censoring commentary about Islamic State that’s not promoting terrorism.

Matters get more complicated when confronting that particular terror group because ISIS -- a common abbreviation for the group -- is also a relatively common first name for women. Earlier this year, one woman named Isis complained that her Facebook account had been wrongfully blocked, and that the company required her to send a copy of her passport to reinstate it.

Different Laws

The companies also have to grapple with different laws in different countries. Twitter’s policy is not to block content unless it is clearly illegal, meaning a tweet disallowed in one country might appear to the rest of the world. It has sometimes refused to block content that governments don’t wish their citizens to see, occasionally leading authorities to shut down access to Twitter in their countries.

The administration official said that while the U.S. did not want its companies to be disadvantaged, the government hopes the firms will help prevent the technologies from being used in terror attacks.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner to succeed Obama in 2017, said earlier Sunday that technology companies needed to join the fight against Islamic State.

“We’re going to need help from Facebook and from YouTube and from Twitter,” the former secretary of state said during an interview on ABC’s This Week. “They cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence by the sophisticated Internet user.”

Clinton later told a forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington that technology firms needed to “deny online space” to terror groups.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE