Obama prods tech to shut down social media accounts of terrorists

Obama prods tech to shut down social media accounts of terrorists
© Getty Images

President Obama will press technology companies to collaborate with law enforcement in counterterrorism efforts following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., he said in remarks from the Oval Office Sunday night.

“We constantly examine our strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done,” Obama said. “And that's why I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”


But the issue of how the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uses technology to further its goals received much less attention in the 13-minute speech than observers had expected. A senior administration official indicated to reporters on Sunday that the president would address both ISIS’s use of secure communications to plan attacks undetected and its use of social media as a recruiting tool.

“There are cases where we believe that individuals should not have access to social media for that purpose,” the official said. “That is a dialogue that we have been having with Silicon Valley.”

“At the same time we would not want to see certain methods of encryption making it impossible to detect and disrupt terrorist plotting,” the official continued. “This is a balance that we want to strike in partnership with our technology industry.”

Social media platforms — like Facebook and Twitter — have come under pressure to remove or otherwise disrupt accounts being used to spread terrorist propaganda or recruit followers. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal Gloria Steinem: Selection of Kamala Harris recognizes that 'black women ... are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party' MORE on Sunday called for the U.S. to “deprive jihadists of virtual territory” by “work[ing] with host companies to shut them down.”

As far back as March, senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Twitter urging it to “do more” to “put a stop to this cyber jihad.”

Twitter has in the past deactivated large groups of accounts associated with ISIS. Facebook last week removed the account of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Critics have expressed concerns that asking a private company to regulate free speech could set a dangerous precedent.

“This is complicated,” Clinton said during her Sunday remarks at the Brookings Institution. “You’ll hear all the usual complaints — freedom of speech. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding and shut off the flow of foreign fighters, we have to shut off their means of communicating.”

Unconfirmed reports that the terrorists behind last month’s deadly Paris attacks planned the strikes on encrypted devices have also fanned the flames of a tense debate over the extent to which terrorists and other criminals are able to communicate securely on encrypted technology.

While law enforcement agencies have warned that extremists are able to “go dark,” avoiding surveillance, technology companies insist that building a back door into encrypted devices like iPhones weakens online security overall.

The White House earlier this fall backed away from supporting a legislative solution to the problem, instead saying that it would encourage technology companies and law enforcement to work together.

Julian Hattem contributed.