U.S. Officials to Meet With Tech Companies on Terror Threats

  • Twitter, Facebook part of talks with FBI, intelligence chiefs
  • Terrorists use of social media, encryption under discussion

The Twitter Inc. logo is displayed on the facade of the company's headquarters in San Francisco on Sept. 13, 2013.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials will meet Friday in California with top executives of technology and social media companies including Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. to find ways to counter terrorists using popular Internet platforms to recruit and spread propaganda, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among the officials flying to Northern California to attend the session are Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to a U.S. official. Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, said representatives from his company, Apple, and Google Inc.’s YouTube are scheduled to take part. Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth said the company plans to be there as well.

Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have been meeting for months with the companies, raising concerns about how terrorists are using social media platforms. Officials also have expressed particular concern that terrorists and criminals are using sophisticated methods to hide their communications, such as encryption that scrambles data with code, private online chats and hidden websites. Law enforcement officials refer to such techniques as "going dark."

While encryption will be a topic at the summit, a person familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified said the discussions will be comprehensive and address everything from blocking terrorists using social media networks to better tracking how they recruit followers to countering and undercutting their message.

Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to comment. The Wall Street Journal reported the planned meeting earlier.

Top Officials

Other administration officials scheduled to participate include Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, the person said.

Apple, Google and other companies incorporated stronger encryption in their products after revelations of U.S. spying disclosed by former federal contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Companies say giving the U.S. government a “key” to access encrypted communications would open the way for hackers and countries such as China to obtain private messages.

Obama administration officials and some lawmakers have said more urgency is needed to counter terrorists following deadly attacks in Paris in November and last month in San Bernardino, California. The FBI said the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting massacre communicated through direct private messages, which are visible only to the message sender and the recipient.

Comey has warned that terrorists are skilled in using social media to inspire followers to act. Detecting persons communicating with terrorists overseas, particularly members of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, is proving difficult, as is uncovering the extent of plots that have been unraveled, Comey testified before Congress last month.

Comey said the FBI has detected members of Islamic State reaching out to potential recruits on social media, particularly Twitter. Once contact is made, the terrorists direct their potential recruits to use encrypted technologies, Comey has said.

Radicalized Muslims

One illustration of the problem, Comey said, was an incident in May in which two radicalized Muslims, both heavily armed and wearing body armor, were slain by local police during an attack on an exhibition of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Texas.

One of the men exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist in the hours before the attack, Comey said. “We have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” Comey said. "To this day, I cannot say what he said to that terrorist. That is a big problem. We have to grapple with it."

Terrorists know that law enforcement authorities have trouble obtaining court orders to access mobile messaging applications, Comey said.

Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who heads the Senate’s intelligence committee, said addressing the encryption issue is one of his top goals for this year, including possibly through legislation.

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