Obama wants help from tech firms to fight terrorism

The use of encryption by tech companies has come under criticism from U.S. law enforcement agencies

U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking the help of tech companies to combat terror threats, which he described as entering a new phase.

Obama's remarks could put into sharp focus again the demand by law enforcement agencies for tech companies to provide ways for the government to be able to access encrypted communications.

In an address late Sunday from the Oval Office, Obama said he "would urge hi-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."

The address comes after two attackers, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik,  killed 14 people and injured another 21 in a gun attack in a social service center in San Bernardino, California.

The government has come around to the view that it was a fundamentalist attack after Malik reportedly put up a post on Facebook claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. As the Internet erases the distance between countries, "we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people," Obama said.

The President did not, however, provide details of how the administration planned to work with the tech industry on combating terrorism. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has previously asked for a "robust debate" on encryption of communications, saying that the technology could come in the way of his doing his job to keep people safe.

Comey, however, said in October that the U.S. administration would work on a compromise with industry rather than seek legislation to counter the encryption of communications by many technology services and product vendors.

That the Internet is seen as a key battlefield to counter terrorism was evident again on Sunday. In a statement after Obama's speech, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, said that the committee would advance legislation to combat terrorists’ use of social media.

Terrorists are believed to communicate, coordinate attacks and recruit followers through social networks and other Internet services.

Royce and others introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in September to require a report from the government on U.S. strategy to combat terrorist use of social media and its effectiveness.

Tech firms and civil rights groups are opposed to the dilution of encryption, citing privacy concerns. Ever since the revelations in 2013 by Edward Snowden of wide-scale surveillance by the National Security Agency, the industry and civil rights groups have been fighting to counter demands for information, usually coupled with gag orders, which are seen to encroach on user privacy.

The bulk collection of phone data by the NSA was, for example, rolled back last month to allow for a more targeted search of the metadata.

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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