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Exclusive: How US government wants Silicon Valley tech leaders to fight ISIS

US recruits tech leaders: In the wake of Islamic State and other violent attacks, an Obama administration delegation met with technology leaders Friday to develop a strategy for battling terrorists' use of technology.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, seen here at an event in New York last month, participated in a meeting on Friday with Obama administration officials about how Silicon Valley can help impede terrorists' use of technology.

Concerned about terrorists using the Web to recruit and spread extremist ideology, a delegation of top Obama administration officials met with Silicon Valley executives Friday to brainstorm ways to counter militants’ use of technology and social media platforms.

The meeting was an effort to find common ground between Washington and technology leaders who have clashed in recent months over issues such as encrypted communications and lawmakers' social media monitoring proposals.

"We are interested in exploring all options with you for how to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology, including encrypted technology, to threaten our national security and public safety," according to a briefing document White House leaders distributed to participants of the meeting held in San Jose, Calif., a portion of which was obtained by Passcode.

"We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to address this problem and that each of you has very different products and services that work in different ways. Are there high-level principles we could agree on for working through these problems together?"

The recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks focused attention on Islamic State (IS or ISIL) militants’ use of technology to plot attacks and incite followers to carry out violence – and potentially escape detection from law enforcement.

Both Democrats and Republicans lashed out at tech companies that offer encrypted communication tools and called on social media companies to do more to rid their services of extremists. President Obama, too, vowed "to urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."

The flying rhetoric sparked the tech industry to urge policymakers not to make rash decisions that may change the free and open Internet. They pushed back on calls to downgrade encryption technologies meant to protect consumers from criminal hackers and ensure privacy so law enforcement could more easily monitor terrorists and criminals, and bristled against calls to mandate social media sites report terrorist activity to federal authorities that might jeopardize free speech.  

Obama administration officials' questions on Friday to tech executives, including Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and senior leaders from Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube, reflect a desire to find new ways of working with Silicon Valley to use technology to counter extremism online while moving beyond the encryption debate that has proved so divisive.

"Are there technologies that could make it harder for terrorists to use the Internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize?" the briefing document said, "or easier for us to find them when they do? What are the potential downsides or unintended consequences we should be aware of when considering these kinds of technology-based approaches to counterterrorism?"

Meeting attendees from the Obama administration included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Technology Advisor Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and NSA chief Mike Rogers.

A senior administration official declined to discuss specifics of the meeting or internal document Passcode was provided, but stressed the meeting was "a very good technical brainstorming discussion…. Overall, the tone was collegial, it was collaborative, and we feel it was very productive."

The administration, the official continued, "is committed to taking every action possible to confront and interdict terrorist activities wherever they may occur, including in cyberspace. We are using this engagement and others to enlist the help of industry leaders and experts in our effort to ensure we bring the most innovative private and public sector thinking to all aspects of combating terrorism as a whole."

Facebook, for its part, said the social networking company was "united" in its goal of keeping terrorists and terror-promoting content off the Internet. In the meeting, a Facebook spokesperson said, "we explained our policies and how we enforce them – Facebook does not tolerate terrorists or terror propaganda and we work aggressively to remove it as soon as we become aware of it. This is an ever-evolving landscape, and we will continue to engage regularly with NGOs, industry partners, academics, and government officials on how to keep Facebook, and other Internet services, free of this material."

Also on Friday, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department announced a new task force to counter violent extremism.

"The horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this winter underscored the need for the United States and our partners in the international community and the private sector to deny violent extremists like ISIL fertile recruitment ground," National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

The State Department will also establish the Global Engagement Center, which Mr. Price said "will allow us to place an intensified focus on empowering and enabling the voices of international partners, governmental and non-governmental, and shift away from direct messaging."

While the task force announcement is separate from the discussion with tech companies, it’s clear from the San Jose briefing document the Obama administration is already thinking about ways they can pitch in.

The Obama administration sees a shortage of what it calls "compelling" and "credible" content as an alternative to that pushed by IS and other terrorist groups, often because it’s not as effectively produced or distributed or it’s dangerous for activists to speak out.

"In parallel with ongoing US government efforts, we invite the private sector to consider ways to increase the availability alternative content," according to the document from Friday's meeting. 

"Beyond the tech sector, we have heard from other private sector actors, including advertising executives, who are interested in helping develop and amplify compelling counter-ISIL content; and we hope there are opportunities to bring together the best in tech, media, and marketing to work with credible non-government voices to address this shared challenge."

Another way companies might be able to help thwart extremism, officials in the document suggest, is by weighing in on tools to detect and measure radicalization. "While it is unclear whether radicalization is measurable or could be measured, such a measurement would be extremely useful to help shape and target counter-messaging and efforts focused on countering violent extremism."

The officials acknowledge potential issues with this: "This type of approach requires consideration of First Amendment protections and privacy and civil liberties concerns, additional front-end research on specific drivers of radicalization and themes among violent extremist populations, careful design of intervention tools, dedicated technical expertise, and the ability to iteratively improve the tools based on experience in deploying them," the document says.

Still, the officials note that industry has expertise in tracking its own messages as they reach a targeted audience. "A partnership to determine if resonance can be measured for both ISIL and counter-ISIL content in order to guide and improve and more effectively counter the ISIL narrative could be beneficial.”


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