The White House is increasing pressure on the tech industry to help rein in terrorism, sending top national security officials to Silicon Valley and announcing the creation of a task force to help prevent terror groups from using social media to radicalize and mobilize recruits.
When Barack Obama addressed the nation after the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack, he urged high-tech and law enforcement leaders “to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”
Although the tech industry says it wants to help, it’s reluctant to give away private information and data to government agencies, arguing that doing so fosters user distrust and raises the risk of hacker attacks.
The newly created Countering Violent Extremism task force will be led by the departments of Homeland Security and Justice but will include staff from the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and other federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
In addition, the State Department will establish a unit called the Global Engagement Center to work with allies to deter terrorists from carrying out attacks overseas.
“Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.
The initiative will require a level of cooperation that historically has not existed between the White House and Silicon Valley, which have long been at odds over government surveillance — especially since the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks sparked a panic over privacy. The former security contractor revealed widespread snooping by the National Security Agency that the tech industry says it’s still paying for.
American cloud computing firms, for example, say they’ve lost sales and opportunities overseas over fears the U.S. government will gain access to sensitive information. Forrester Research estimates the U.S. information technology sector could lose as much as $180 billion in business by the end of 2016.
Tech firms have also been adamant about the need to protect consumer data, much of it shielded with increasingly sophisticated encryption tools.
“The tech community has been pretty clear it’s not going to give the government a free pass on these things,” said Tanya Forsheit, a partner at the law firm BakerHostetler who specializes in privacy and data protection. “I don’t think that most tech companies are inclined to just give in.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly said that his company has never worked with any government agency in any country “to create a back door in any of our products or services.”
As it is now, leading media companies say they turn over user data when law enforcement, courts or government agencies send in a legal request, usually in the form of a subpoena, wiretap or search warrant.
But not all types of requests require consent of a judge or court. The tech industry has been lobbying nationwide to elevate standards, so law enforcement would have to go through more hurdles unless there’s an imminent danger.
Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown approved a law requiring a search warrant, and thus court approval, for law enforcement to gather private emails, text messages and GPS data.
But with each terrorist attack and growing fears over the Islamic State, the pressure on tech companies to compromise will only grow — especially if access to private social media communications could have thwarted an attack.
San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik, for example, sent at least two private messages on social media to a group of Pakistani friends in 2012 and 2014, stating her support for Islamic jihad and pledging to join the fight, law enforcement officials said.
As situations like that arise, security experts said it will be increasingly hard for tech firms to defend profits over lives.
The task force announcement comes as Obama’s top national security officials — including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others — tried to enlist support from technology and social media companies at a meeting in San Jose, Calif.
Earnest conceded there were “complicated First Amendment issues” to discuss regarding freedom of speech, but he said the tech companies in the meeting were run by “patriotic Americans.”
“They certainly don’t have any interest or desire in seeing their tools and their technology being used to aid and abet terrorists,” Earnest said.