The White House Asks Silicon Valley What To Do To 'Disrupt' ISIS

from the not-that-kind-of-disruption... dept

As you may have heard, on Friday, a group of top White House officials, including Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson, FBI Director James Comey and NSA boss Admiral Michael Rogers, all came out to Silicon Valley to meet with tech execs to talk about how to “disrupt” groups like ISIS. On the tech side, a bunch of top execs came, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince. The White House released a basic agenda publicly, though there was also apparently a more thorough briefing document that ran about 7 pages.

U.S. Government Meeting with Technology Executives on Counterterrorism

I. Introductions

II. Setting the stage

a. Purpose of Meeting

b. Unclassified background on terrorist use of technology, including encryption

III. Core Discussion Areas

a. How can we make it harder for terrorists to leveraging the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence?

b. How can we help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut ISIL?

c. 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?

d. 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?

IV. Questions or other issues raised by Technology Companies

V. Next Steps

You will, of course, note the bit on encryption. According to some of the reports, while the meeting was really supposed to be more about anything but encryption (i.e. about figuring out ways to “counter” ISIS’s supposed social media success, which likely has been overblown anyway), Comey said that he would only participate if encryption was on the agenda.

The Intercept got its hands on the more detailed briefing and revealed the part about encryption:

In addition to using technology to recruit and radicalize, terrorists are using technology to mobilize supporters to attack and to plan, move money for, coordinate, and execute attacks. The roles played by terrorist leaders and attack plotters in this activity vary, ranging from providing general direction to small groups to undertake attacks of their own design wherever they are located to offering repeated and specific guidance on how to execute attacks. To avoid law enforcement and the intelligence community detecting their activities, terrorists are using encrypted forms of communications at various stages of attack plotting and execution. We expect terrorists will continue to use technology to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, including using encrypted communications where law enforcement cannot obtain the content of the communication even with court authorization. We would be happy to provide classified briefings in which we could share additional information.

Key Questions: 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. 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? And are there technologies that could make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize? 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 counter terrorism?

==

A number of organizations in the government, as well as some in private industry and academia, have researched techniques to detect and measure radicalization. Some have suggested that a measurement of level of radicalization could provide insights to measure levels of radicalization to violence. While it is unclear whether radicalization is measureable 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. 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. Industry certainly has a lot of expertise in measuring resonance in order to see how effective and broad a messaging campaign reaches an 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.

==

The United States recognizes the need to empower credible non-governmental voices that would speak out against ISIL and terrorism more broadly both overseas and at home. However, there is a shortage of compelling credible alternative content; and this content is often not as effectively produced or distributed as pro-ISIL content and lacks the sensational quality that can capture the media?s attention. Content creation is made difficult by ISIL?s brutal rule and near total control of communications infrastructure in its territory in Iraq and Syria, which can make it dangerous for citizens to speak out or provide video or images. Further, many of the leading and credible voices that might counter ISIL lack the content-generation and social media prowess that would be required to counter ISIL online. There is also a need for more credible positive messaging and content that provides alternatives to young people concerned about many of the grievances ISIL highlights.

In parallel with ongoing U.S. Government efforts, we invite the private sector to consider ways to increase the availability alternative content. 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.

For what it’s worth, it appears (thankfully) that the majority of the meeting did not focus on the issue of encryption and (somewhat importantly) it was made clear to government officials that they’re doing a hell of a lot more harm than good in continuing to suggest that undermining encryption is a reasonable approach. Tim Cook apparently said that the government needs to come out publicly in favor of strong encryption, rather than its silly statements that suggest a desire to undermine it.

The real crux of the meeting, though, was looking at if there was “some other thing” that the tech industry could do to help in the fight against terrorism. This actually seems like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But there are still reasonable concerns. First, pretty much all of these companies already have terms of service that forbid their use in the furtherance of criminal or terrorist activities. Second, they tend to already work with the government when such activity is discovered on the service. Third, in many cases, letting terrorist organizations use these platforms freely is one of the most effective ways to enable intelligence officials to find out what they’re doing.

If you look at the agenda above, it really feels as if the meeting was built on the wrong premise. It’s basically all about how do we stop bad people from using technology effectively. But that’s a fool’s errand, because technology doesn’t distinguish between good people and bad people.

Technology, for the most part, is about helping people do things better and more efficiently, not about stopping people from doing things. It’s too bad there wasn’t a focus on using today’s technology tools to enable more people to help out in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Instead, much of the focus is on “how do we make it harder for someone to do [x].”

From the reports that came out, the discussion was pretty high level, with ideas like “could Facebook adjust its algorithm that spots potentially suicidal users to also detect potentially radicalized members.” Having such discussions is fine, in theory. In fact, if anything, the oddest thing about this little “summit” is that it demonstrates just how wide the gulf has become between Silicon Valley and DC. In the past, discussions like this weren’t so crazy — and didn’t need press coverage.

But here’s the thing: the intelligence community totally poisoned the well here with its actions over the past decade and a half. For the past few months DC folks have been whining about how Silicon Valley is seeing this as an “us v. them” situation, but that’s only true because the NSA blew everything up, hacking into systems, lying to the public, abusing the secretive powers of National Security Letters, the FISA Court and Executive Order 12333. The government treated Silicon Valley as an adversary, and is now whining that Silicon Valley doesn’t want to help.

I’m quite certain that everyone in the room wants to do what they can to “stop ISIS” (“disrupt” is totally the wrong word here). And it would be great if there were ways to actually do that. But it can’t involve the usual way that the intelligence and law enforcement communities have focused on in the past decade and a half: violating privacy, exploiting systems and generally treating the public’s rights as collateral damage. And it can’t involve stomping on freedom of expression.

It’s fine if the two sides want to talk and see if they can come up with something useful, but as long as DC keeps thinking of Silicon Valley as creating “magic pixie dust” instead of innovation, it’s not going to be that useful.

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Comments on “The White House Asks Silicon Valley What To Do To 'Disrupt' ISIS”

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65 Comments
TechDescartes (profile) says:

How is that going to work again?

a. How can we make it harder for terrorists to leveraging the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence?
b. How can we help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut ISIL?

To accomplish (a), eliminate the First Amendment. To accomplish (b), rely on the First Amendment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who, Exactly, is a Terrorist?

Candidate substitutions shown in bold.

For Republicans:

a. How can we make it harder for gun owners to leveraging the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence?

b. How can we help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut fundamentalist Christians?

c. 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?

d. How can we make it harder for conservatives 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?


For Democrats:

a. How can we make it harder for women to leveraging the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence?

b. How can we help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut African-Americans?

c. 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?

d. How can we make it harder for… well, maybe there are some liberals left in the Democratic Party, so we’ll use “liberals”… 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?


The reason why free speech is important is because your speech is next on the chopping block.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Who, Exactly, is a Terrorist?

First, the quoted bullet points are more expansive than “planning and executing acts of violence”. Had the original bullet points been scoped to only cover those acts, that would certainly improve matters.

Second, “planning” has always been a slippery slope. I am not aware of a bright line demarcating what constitutes “planning” and what does not.

Third, “executing acts of violence” does not involve freedom of speech, unless they are vorpal words or hollow-point sentences or something.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How difficult is it to stop their control of oil wells?

Stop Erdogan (Turkey) from buying said oil, and stop bitching about the Russians blowing up their tanker trucks when the latter are discovered.

We do all agree that the existence of ISIS is a bad thing, right, and much worse than Russia having a free hand to help rid the world of extremist (so-called) Muslim terrorists? Excuse me for believing that Islam doesn’t actually countenance ISIS’ senseless brutality. I’m thinking here of murdering antiquities specialists and immolating downed airmen, among many other barbarities. Muslim airmen even.

Does the US gov’t really want peace in the Middle East? All of the US gov’t and its various agencies, or just some of them? The US gov’t does have a reputation for being a bit dyslexic in that way. Left-hand vs. right-hand, and all that.

Has anyone asked the CIA what it wants? They’re very often a loose cannon.

Anonymous Coward says:

How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns. Instead of focusing on the tool, maybe we need to focus on the bad people? The US always focuses on the symptoms and not the disease. Treating the symptoms will hide the real problem and it can flair up far worse than it ever was before. The middle east seems to be getting worse the longer the US meddle’s in their affairs. I don’t know the full history of the US involvement but I would say that the US may have even planted the seed for the discontent in the middle east back in the 70s maybe earlier.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

From my understanding of history it goes a bit further back than that. At least as far as the Islamic attack on Jerusalem in 634 AD. Unless you take the whole history into account – and discard the fake history that has been propagated by Islamic propagandists in the last 50 years or so then you will not have a proper perspective on it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

It’s not really to do with the US – they do it everywhere and they’ve been doing it since long before the US existed.

Their main reason for disliking the US is that it is a successful country that is not Muslim. No tweaking of US foriegn policy will change that.

The reason why thing have been getting worse since the 1970’s is the massive injection of cash into fundamentalist Islam by Saudi Arabia since the original oil crisis boosted their revenues. However that is just an enabler the root of the problem goes right back to the 7th century.

It is the immediate post war period when the Midlle East was relatively peaceful, prosperous and free that is the outlier in history. Right now we are simply returning to the post 7th century norm.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

That’s because the Saudis rely on a fundamentalist sect called Wahhabists to prop up their authoritarian regime. The trouble with Wahhabists is their tendency to radicalism and the use of shaming tactics on those who aren’t radical enough. Hence the split into the Arabian People’s Front and the People’s Front of Arabia.

Islam had a great flowering pre-Renaissance but began to collapse around the time Wahabbism began to take root. The reason it’s always been “popular” is that authoritarians use authoritarians to enforce their tyranny. And the “great” thing about being an enforcer in a tyrannical regime is you can do the most unspeakable things and get away with it if you’re doing it in the name of the regime.

Effectively, then, it’s not Islam that’s the problem, it’s authoritarianism. We’re beginning to see what it’s like to live under a restrictive regime in “the free world.” We’re just calling it something else.

/Monty Python

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns

while banning guns mainly hurts bad people.

Bad people ignore the law, and the hand gun ban in the UK has not stopped their use by criminals. It has hurt the people who enjoyed target shooting, up to and including Olympic pistol. Further banning the means does not eliminate the causes, and often leads to further bans as the bad people find an alternative means.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns

Bad people ignore the law, and the hand gun ban in the UK has not stopped their use by criminals. It has hurt the people who enjoyed target shooting, up to and including Olympic pistol. Further banning the means does not eliminate the causes, and often leads to further bans as the bad people find an alternative means.

Whilst I agree that the UK gun ban went a bit too far in banning target shooting I cannot agree that it has not been effective. It has been very effective. If you compare UK gun deaths with the US you will see what I mean. The statistics are undeniable. Also I would say that the residual use of guns be criminals in the UK owes a lot to their ready availability in the US.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns

If you compare UK gun deaths with the US you will see what I mean.

That is an Invalid comparison, as UK gun deaths have always been very low. The Hand Gun ban was enacted as a reaction to a single Incident, the Dunblane School Shooting.
The US has a particular problem with guns which is as much to do with poor gun safety, and in particular the attitude that a gun should be loaded and ready to go at all times. This promotes many an accidental or drunk shooting incident, because loaded guns are just lying around.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns


That is an Invalid comparison, as UK gun deaths have always been very low. The Hand Gun ban was enacted as a reaction to a single Incident, the Dunblane School Shooting.

You seriously think I don’t know all that already?

Yes UK gun deaths have always been low because UK gun control has always been much stricter than in the US.

The hand gun ban was probably a step a little too far – but strict gun control has kept UK gun deaths down for a very long time.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How do we stop bad people from using technology is the same as how do we stop bad people from using guns

Also I would say that the residual use of guns be criminals in the UK owes a lot to their ready availability in the US.

That’s a novel theory. Are you suggesting the US’ gun culture is radicalizing British criminals? Perhaps an embargo on Hollywood’s exports (“Action” movies and crime dramas) would nip that in the bud?

I think the imposition of Prohibition 2.0 (War On Drugs) is far more to blame by artificially inflating the business of illicit drug sales.

I’m Canuck. We just survived the attempted imposition of the long gun registry here in Canada. We don’t have the US’ Second Amendment and the NRA, but we do have a lot of people who share space with some pretty big predatory animals, including Grizzlies and Polar bears and wolves. Those people were quite annoyed about city folk trying to restrict their usage of guns just because criminals use them too (mostly in cities, coincidentally).

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 the hand gun ban in the UK...

If those countries can manage it, why not the USA?

That would be the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Those who wrote that were worried about the Redcoats coming back and believed people had a right to defend themselves. The downside is some (many) predators and stupid people got the right as well. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Good thing the bad aren’t the only ones who’re armed and capable of defending themselves. Remember, the bad don’t care about laws like making guns illegal. Only the good abide by laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Does anyone else find it ironic how government loves encryption until it’s being used against them. How can they justify stronger encryption for government communications but advocate weaker or no encryption for everyone else?

This is nothing more but another power grab by our government to curtail our constitutional rights. I blame all the morons who voted for Republicans and also the morons who continued to vote for Democrats who continue to support surveillance on the American public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What do the CEOs get out of this?

I wouldn’t say they ‘want’ to go but the media is going to bust you and your company if your response to an invitation to meet with POTUS is ‘nah, you kinda have a shit-show going on about that topic and we really aren’t interested until that changes’.

Anonymous Coward says:

So… what stops them from using code word systems that have been used for millennia? The basic fact of it is, they only have to hide their speech for a limited time. That goal can be satisfied in two ways, keeping the message hidden or keeping the message from being understood. With all the government focus on watching encrypted communication, it’s already been shown that speaking plainly and blending into the crowd of information is quite effective at achieving that goal… making the continued effort on encryption a fool’s errand without being able to show you can identify the information you want need to stop an even before an event happens, not after.

Anonymous Coward says:

Stopping bad people from using the Interwebs

“It’s basically all about how do we stop bad people from using technology effectively.”

We just have our government overlord create the NSA Pre-Check program, modeled after the oh so successful TSA Pre-Check. For only $75 per year, “good” people will get approval to access the Internet. Tech companies will just block access to anyone without the NSA seal of approval. No troubling free speech issues unless you’re a bad person, but then that’s perfectly OK because anyone the government says is bad deserves to be silenced.

Pre-Check has obviously worked for the TSA – we haven’t had any terrorists come through a Pre-Check lane. Bonus: it’s more *revenue* for our poor, underfunded government.

Median Wilfred says:

Who's the boss PLUS constitutional end run?

This whole meeting struck me as bizarre.

Isn’t the end result of meetings like this an end-run around 1st Amendment rights? Corporations do the censoring, so the US Government can’t be held accountable for the censorship. The US Constitution doesn’t hold people to a standard for allowing free speech, just the government.

Second, who is James Comey’s boss? The Attorney General, right? How can Comey, as FBI Director, refuse to attend a meeting if so directed by the AG? Can’t an AG just fire the FBI Director, or is there something else going on (like “leverage” obtained by taping phone calls)?

Anonymous Coward says:

Sounds like the US Gov is looking for ways to counter ISIS’ propaganda with their own anti-ISIS counter-propaganda campaign. As stated in the section about ISIS controlling all the communication infrastructure in Syria, making it hard to launch such a counter-propaganda campaign in Syria.

But let’s not forget it was the United States itself, who provided material support to terrorists in Syria, known as the Free Syrian Army. Through guns, money, TOW missiles, and training.

For the US to now whine about the terrorists groups they don’t control and helped to create through aggressive foreign policy decisions. Seems extremely hypocritical.

shanen (profile) says:

Painfully obvious: Divide and conquer

Not a general solution, but for the specific problem of Daesh/ISIL the American phools on the neo-GOPpy far right need to stop playing by THEIR rules. They WANT to be called “Islamic extremists” precisely because they are NOT the mainstream. They want ALL Muslims to be driven into their funny farm in insane violence.

The most important thing rational non-partisan “We HATE Obama most of all” opponents of Daesh need to do is describe them narrowly, NOT broadly. The lunatic extremists need to be clearly separated from the mainstream mass of peaceful and rational Muslims, not pushed together. Daesh sincerely (and insanely) WANTS an all-out war against Islam.

Once divided from the rest of the Muslims, that leads to the conquer question of who is going to put the boots on the ground to finish cleaning up the mess, and that’s where it gets messy in a political sense. I really expected the response to the latest major atrocity in Paris was going to be an unleashing of Iran. They are the only source of eager boots, but… If Daesh is most precisely described as Wahabbi extremist terrorists… Well, you should see where that is leading and why we do NOT need cheap imported oil, but NO oil at all.

Steve (profile) says:

Lets call this “good people vs bad people” trope what it is. The good people are us & people who agree with us, while the bad people are anyone who disagrees with us strongly enough to take some sort of retaliatory action.
In war, they are called the enemy because we know specifically who they are. When the enemy cannot be identified as the leadership of a nation state, we have to call them bad people & their troops are known as terrorists.
When Government starts viewing anyone who does not share their views as a bad person, regardless of their actual actions, we see protesters labelled as terrorists & people standing up for civil rights as sympathisers.

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