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

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:

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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