Tech Companies Respond to Call for Bigger Role in Fight Against Terrorism

Photo: Terror Organization are reported to use social media to recruit new members across the globe. This Aug. 11, 2015, photo shows a hashtag on Twitter. PlayAmer Ghazzal/Alamy
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Amid recent calls seeming to put more pressure on the tech industry to help more in the fight against terrorism, experts and companies like Facebook and YouTube weighed in today, saying that they were actively doing their part and would continue to do so.

Leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on the U.S. on Sunday to do "everything we can" to protect itself, including fighting terrorists on the Internet.

"I think what we want to do is ... do everything we can to dismantle this jihadist network that they're using on the Internet," Clinton said during an appearance on ABC News' "This Week With George Stephanopoulus."

And in his address from the Oval Office later that day, President Obama touched on the debate around encryption technologies, which prevent others from accessing personal information, saying that it should be difficult for terrorists "to use technology to escape justice."

ISIS is said to use intense online strategies to recruit new members. Last week, hours before she and her husband allegedly shot to death 14 people and injured 21 others, Tashfeen Malik took to social media to pledge her allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic state, according to sources.

"We're going to need help from Facebook and from YouTube," Clinton said Sunday. "They cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence by this sophisticated Internet user. They're going to have to help us take down these announcements and these appeals as quickly as they get up."

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the social media platform was no place for terrorists.

"We work aggressively to ensure that we do not have terrorists or terror groups using the site, and we also remove any content that praises or supports terrorism. We have a community of more than 1.5 billion people who are very good at letting us know when something is not right. We make it easy for them to flag content for us and they do. We have a global team responding to those reports around the clock, and we prioritize any safety-related reports for immediate review. When we find terrorist related material, we look for and remove associated violating content and accounts," the spokesperson said.

YouTube also said that it rejected terrorism and referred to its strong track record of taking "swift action" against terrorist-related content.

"We have clear policies prohibiting terrorist recruitment and content intending to incite violence and quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users. We also terminate accounts run by terrorist organizations or those that repeatedly violate our policies. We allow videos posted with a clear news or documentary purpose to remain on YouTube, applying warnings and age-restrictions as appropriate," a YouTube spokesperson said.

Eduardo Ustaran, a privacy lawyer who represents some tech companies, said that the tech industry has found itself between a rock and a hard place at times.

"Companies are under pressure to cooperate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies whilst at the same time [they] are expected to protect the valuable, personal information they handle," he said.

After the Paris attacks, in which terrorists killed 130 people, Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the attackers "likely" had used encryption to communicate between France, Belgium and Syria.

"We need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks because it makes us blind to the communications and actions of potential adversaries," Burr said in November.

In May, however, Google, Apple and others signed an open letter to Obama requesting that he reject back doors to their operating systems that would permit law enforcement to access encrypted data. The so-called back doors would allow authorities to bypass encryption and get information to track down terrorists and other criminals.

That letter also was signed by cyber-security experts and trade groups.

Kevin Bankston, director of New America's Open Technology Institute, where the letter was posted online, said today that Obama's and Clinton's comments highlighted the continued need for tech companies to work with law enforcement, such as responding to data requests and quickly sharing information in emergency situations.

"Companies are doing all of these things and will continue do them," Bankston said. "What they won't do is deliberately weaken the security of their communications services to facilitate government surveillance. ... Obama and Clinton don't appear to be asking the companies to go down that dangerous road. ... Making U.S. companies weaken their encrypted products won't make terrorists less secure, it will only make us less secure."

Clinton said on Sunday she believed that the public and private sectors could work together to address the threat of terrorism online.

"I know what the argument is from our friends in the [tech] industry, I respect that -- nobody wants to be feeling like their privacy is invaded," she said. "But I also know what the argument is from the other side from law enforcement and security officials. ... Let's get together and try to figure out the best way forward."