WASHINGTON – 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 extremist groups from using social media to radicalize and mobilize recruits.
When President 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 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.
“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. They have long been at odds over government surveillance since the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks sparked a panic over privacy. The security contractor revealed widespread snooping by the National Security Agency that the tech industry says it is 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 this year.
Tech firms have also been adamant about the need to protect consumer data, much of it shielded with 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 lawyer who specializes in privacy and data protection. “I don’t think that most tech companies are inclined to just give in.”
Google, Facebook and other companies say they turn over user data when law enforcement, courts or government agencies send 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.