US govt asks Twitter, Apple, Facebook to help fight terrorism

WASHINGTON • The Obama administration has asked some of the nation's biggest technology companies for help in the fight against terrorism as it announced steps to thwart the recruitment and radicalisation of extremists.

Top administration officials met representatives of Twitter, Apple, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies in San Jose.

In a seven-page memo sent in advance, the firms were asked for ideas on how extremist content online can be identified and removed, as well as for help creating alternative messages, according to excerpts of the document.

"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," the memo said.

"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 mobilise, facilitate and operationalise?"

The meeting, which included President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Attorney-General Loretta Lynch and FBI director James Comey, took place as the President announced a new counter-terrorism task force to thwart extremists and their use of social media after recent deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. 

The task force, made up of Homeland Security and Justice Department representatives, will organise federal efforts into several areas, including research and analysis, technical assistance, communications and programmes to help prevent radicalisation, according to the Homeland Security Department.

"This meeting is the latest in the administration's continuing dialogue with technology providers and others to ensure we are bringing our best private and public sector thinking to combating terrorism," the White House said in a statement.

Facebook explained its policies and how they are enforced, said company spokesman Jodi Seth.

"This meeting confirmed that we are united in our goal to keep terrorists and terror-promoting material off the Internet," she added.

The memo acknowledged the effectiveness of the terrorists' propaganda and asked for help from the tech companies because, it said, "there is a shortage of compelling credible 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," the memo said, using another name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"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."

The FBI said suspects in the San Bernardino shooting massacre communicated through direct private messages on Facebook, which are visible only to the message sender and the recipient.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'US govt asks Twitter, Apple, Facebook to help fight terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe