Planning for More Surveillance? US Officials Hold 'Shady Meeting' With Tech Firms

The agenda of the meeting will reportedly focus on social media use by militant groups. (Photo: Jason Howie/flickr/cc)

Planning for More Surveillance? US Officials Hold 'Shady Meeting' With Tech Firms

Heads of intelligence agencies and other top officials head to Silicon Valley for private summit on counter-terrorism

The Obama administration is reportedly looking to Silicon Valley for assistance in the war on terror, as a handful of top government officials on Friday head to San Jose, California for a private summit with leaders of Apple, Microsoft, Dropbox, and other tech giants.

According to Reuters, which first reported on the meeting Thursday, attendees will include White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI director James Comey, National Intelligence director James Clapper, presidential counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers.

One item on the agenda for the meeting, according to the document seen by the Guardian, is "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?"

One source close to the meetings told the Guardian that because many of the companies on the invite list do not have social networks, the event is also likely to cover encryption--a much more contentious topic between the tech industry and the U.S. government.

At least one executive said that because the meeting was said to be focused on terrorism, it felt like a "bait and switch" after McDonough issued invitations last week.

As Trevor Timm, journalist and co-founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, explained in an op-ed on the Guardian on Friday, "there are so many shady things going on with this meeting it's hard to know where to start."

Timm writes:

You can hate Isis while still being disturbed about the lengths the government is going to pressure these tech companies.

[....] Despite the huge security benefits to encryption and the fact that it has not played a significant role in any of the recent terrorist attacks, the FBI has been on a warpath to get tech companies to stop using end-to-end encryption in some of their communications tools, essentially asking tech giants to give the government a 'backdoor' to make sure there is not any communication platform that they cannot spy on.

This is a dangerously short-sighted move that will not only weaken internet security for everyone and put everyone's privacy at further risk, but will also give Russia, China and other authoritarian countries the green light to demand the exact same thing to crush dissent.

In recent months, encryption has become central to the debate over privacy and national security, as the government has pushed for easier access to user data through "backdoors" to encrypted communications, a call that has grown stronger since the attacks in Paris last November--and tech companies, thus far, have largely resisted the demand.

Also attending Friday's summit are executives from Facebook and Twitter. Both companies, for their parts, have expressed support of encryption and civil liberties, although an analysis released late last year found that the biggest firms in the world--including Facebook and Twitter, along with Microsoft, Apple, and Google--all failed to uphold users' basic privacy rights.

Despite those shortfalls, Apple in September rejected a court order to hand over to the Department of Justice a series of text messages sent between two iPhones, citing encryption safeguards. The agency had requested the data for a criminal investigation, but Apple said its new operating system prevented company from accessing data on phones with PINs or passwords, even for law enforcement agencies. The DOJ is also engaged in a similar tussle with Microsoft.

The meeting comes shortly after President Barack Obama, in his 2015 year-end news brief, said he would do more to engage with tech firms this year on the issue of national security. The agenda for Friday's meeting does not include the word encryption, but states, "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?"

But, as Timm posited Friday, it's unclear as of yet "what, exactly, government officials hope Silicon Valley actually does, since they already work to ban terrorism-related content and are unlikely to budge on backdoors."

If the government wants tech companies "to go above and beyond through censorship and surveillance, they should be using the legal process, not backroom deals," Timm continued. "For years, civil society groups have pressured tech companies to require legal orders before handing over users' data since there were so many scandals involving voluntary and legally dubious surveillance during the Bush years. Do we really want to go back to those times, when it was just a wink and a nod between giant corporation and law enforcement?"

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