(Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama announced a new counterterrorism task force Friday to thwart extremists and their use of social media in the aftermath of recent attacks.
"The horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this winter underscored the need for the United States and our partners in the international community and the private sector to deny violent extremists like ISIL fertile recruitment ground," the White House said in a statement. ISIL refers to the Islamic State terrorist group, which has been linked to both attacks.
The move comes as top Obama administration officials were dispatched to San Jose, California, to drum up support from Silicon Valley to counter terrorism. The closed-door meeting Friday included representatives from Twitter Inc., Apple Inc., and Facebook Inc., and others. 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.
The White House is seeking the technology industry’s help to make it harder for extremists to recruit over social media and to deliver counter messages to their propaganda.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday’s discussion with technology industry leaders was aimed at fostering the cooperation between government and industry that Obama alluded to in an address last month. He compared the effort to attempts to combat child pornography.
“The goal here is to find additional ways to work together to make it even harder for terrorists or criminals to find refuge in cyberspace,” Earnest said.
He declined to outline the specific agenda and said that it included a “robust” discussion of ways to disrupt communications from extremist groups, provide metrics to measure success and “publish and amplify” messages to counter extremist propaganda. He said they also talked about solutions to such groups using encryption to shield communications. The issue has been a point of contention. Companies say giving the U.S. government a “key” to access encrypted communications would open the way for hackers and countries such as China to obtain private messages.
Among those attending the California meeting were Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers and White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.
Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have been meeting for months with the companies, raising concerns about how terrorists are using social media platforms. Officials also have expressed particular concern that terrorists and criminals are using sophisticated methods to hide their communications, such as encryption that scrambles data with code, private online chats and hidden websites. Law enforcement officials refer to such techniques as "going dark."
While encryption was a topic at the summit, a person familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified said the discussions was comprehensive and address everything from blocking terrorists using social media networks to better tracking how they recruit followers to countering and undercutting their message.
Obama administration officials and some lawmakers have said more urgency is needed to counter terrorists following deadly attacks in Paris in November and last month in San Bernardino, California.
Comey has warned that terrorists are skilled in using social media to inspire followers to act. Detecting persons communicating with terrorists overseas, particularly members of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, is proving difficult, as is uncovering the extent of plots that have been unraveled, Comey testified before Congress last month.
--With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber.
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