White House seeks to enlist Silicon Valley to ‘disrupt radicalization
The White House will attempt to enlist Silicon Valley’s major technology firms in its efforts to combat terrorism on Friday when a delegation of the most senior intelligence officials fly to California to meet with executives from companies including Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube and others.
A copy of the agenda obtained by the Guardian indicates the White House seeks more or less to channel Silicon Valley’s talent into its war against Islamic State and other extremist groups.
It states: “In what ways can we use technology to help disrupt paths to radicalization to violence, identify recruitment patterns, and provide metrics to help measure our efforts to counter radicalization to violence?”
Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, will lead a delegation that will include National Security Agency chair Admiral Mike Rogers and the director of national intelligence – America’s top spy James Clapper. FBI director James Comey also will attend.
According to people familiar with the meeting, it will take place at 11am PST in a government building in San Jose, just south of where many of the firms are headquartered.
Other tech participants include LinkedIn and Dropbox, two of the people said. None of the individuals who briefed the Guardian were authorised to speak about the meeting on the record.
It was not immediately clear which tech executives would be attending the meeting.
The gathering could mark either a new escalation in the standoff between the Obama administration and Silicon Valley or a thaw in tensions, which have been ongoing in the wake of disclosures from NSA whilsterblower Edward Snowden.
The White House has not publicly confirmed the meeting. However, when asked about the meeting, a senior White House official said: “The administration has been clear about the importance of government and industry working together to confront terrorism.”
Some US officials have accused tech firms of not doing enough to flag, intercept, or delete data transmitted by foreign extremists. And while technology companies have shown some willingness to help on that front, they are nervous of being seen as too eager to give government access to user data.
This feud took a new turn in recent years as tech companies beefed up their encryption, in part, to make it harder for the government to access some users’ data. In some cases, such as Apple’s iPhone, the company can’t help law enforcement access the contents of a user’s phone, even if the government has a warrant.
Several people familiar with the meeting said White House officials told technology companies the focus would be on terrorism and extremism. But given that many of the participants – Apple, Microsoft and Dropbox – don’t have social networks, encryption is almost assured to come up, several people close to the talks said.
At least one tech executive, who declined to speak on the record, said this felt like a “bait and switch” since McDonough first approached some tech companies last week. Whether that feeling was shared by other tech companies couldn’t immediately be learned.
But since Snowden leaked secrets on western government spy operations in 2013, Silicon Valley’s leaders have been cautious of seeming too cozy with Washington’s three-letter agencies, which also include the FBI and the CIA.
For instance, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, formerly known as Google, was once friendly with the Obama administration. But in a charged 2014 meeting he declined a personal invitation from Obama for more meetings on surveillance, people familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal at the time.
On this front, the agenda doesn’t contain the word encryption but says: “How can we make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, and make it easier for law enforcement and the intelligence community to identify terrorist operatives and prevent attacks?”
In his year-end news briefing last month, Obama said one of his goals for the new year was to better engage with technology companies on issues of national security. “We’re going to have to continue to balance our needs for security with people’s legitimate concerns about privacy,” he said.
The White House hopes to have more meetings in the near future with tech executives on the topic, a person familiar with the administration’s plans said.
To a certain extent, the Obama administration appears to still be figuring out what it’s looking for from Silicon Valley in its fight against Isis. It knows terrorists use social networks and other apps to communicate. It knows tech companies can monitor and police some, but not all of this.
Now the administration seeks to determine what more technology companies can do, the person familiar with the administration’s plans said.
This becomes a delicate act for technology companies.
Most of them will flag user data that credibly threatens another person. But that gets murky if someone is simply rallying against the US government online – a practice explicitly protected by the US constitution.