Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft meet US officials on 2020 election security

The daylong meeting was held at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
The daylong meeting was held at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft met government officials in Silicon Valley on Wednesday (Sept 4) to discuss and coordinate on how best to help secure the 2020 United States election, kicking off what is likely to be a marathon effort to prevent the kind of foreign interference that roiled the 2016 election.

The day-long meeting, held at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, included security teams from the tech companies, as well as members of the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security.

The agenda was to build up discussions and strategic collaboration before the November 2020 state, federal and presidential elections, according to Facebook. Tech company representatives and government officials talked about potential threats, as well as how to better share information and detect threats, the social network said. Chief executives from the companies did not attend, said a person briefed on the meeting, who declined to be identified for confidentiality reasons.

"Improving election security and countering information operations are complex challenges that no organisation can solve alone," Mr Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook cyber-security policy, said in a statement. "Today's meeting builds on our continuing commitment to work with industry and government partners, as well as with civil society and security experts, to better understand emerging threats and prepare for future elections."

The meeting, nearly 14 months before Election Day, illustrates how tech companies are preparing for the 2020 race after Russian operatives used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to spread disinformation and sow discord in 2016. Since then, many of the tech companies have been under scrutiny. Some have said they can do better and have made internal changes to reduce disinformation and foreign interference.

In May 2018, for instance, many of the same tech companies met at Facebook headquarters to discuss ways they could collaborate before the midterm elections that year. Tech companies and the federal government have gone to greater lengths to cooperate on threat modelling, intelligence sharing and building stronger ties between the public and private sector agencies, said a person briefed on the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was confidential.

The companies have also tried other tactics to get a handle on how their platforms and products can be misused in elections. Facebook has tried to monitor and ward off threats to elections in many countries beyond the United States, including Brazil, Mexico, Germany and France. Last week, for example, the social network said it was strengthening how it verified which groups and people place political advertising on its site. And Twitter said last month that it would bar state-backed media from promoting tweets on its service.

 
 
 
 

Bloomberg earlier reported Wednesday's meeting between the tech companies and government officials.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI confirmed they attended. An FBI official said the agency was invited by the tech companies to "discuss our shared goal of protecting democracy and securing the 2020 US state, federal and presidential elections". A Twitter spokesman called the meeting "a joint effort in response to a shared threat, and we are committed to doing our part". A spokeswoman for Microsoft confirmed the company participated in the meeting, as did a spokesman for Google.

Mr Richard Salgado, director for law enforcement and information security at Google, said: "We will continue to monitor our platforms while sharing relevant information with law enforcement and industry peers. It is crucial that industry, law enforcement and others collaborate to prevent any threats to the integrity of our elections."

Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard's Kennedy School, said the meeting was a sign of "welcome discussions." But he added that Congress and the Trump administration "must continue to hold these companies accountable so that they keep the intelligence community informed of their plans."

He added that 2016 showed how deep the problems of political communications were in the United States and "should 2016 happen again, our national political future will be cast in doubt."

Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Centre, said the public should also be wary of such meetings between government agencies and tech giants for privacy reasons.

"We don't know where the lines are drawn internally," she said. "We don't know whether the tech companies would consider your inbox or direct messages subject to sharing with the state."