Tech industry pressured to enlist in war on terror

Just as truth is the first casualty of war, the digital battlefield has privacy in its crosshairs.

Around the world, technology companies are getting drafted for the war against terror as ISIS and Al Qaeda increasingly rely on advanced Internet skills and secure communications to advance their cause. And with each new act of terror, as the apparently smartphone-enabled coordination of recent ISIS assaults in Paris demonstrated, governmental pressure to share data or weaken privacy safeguards will continue to grow.

The massacre in Paris last month underscores concerns raised in January, two weeks after an Al Qaeda attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, when President Francois Hollande called on major technology and other companies “not only to be watchful, but to get involved.”

“They can play their role, identify illegal content and make it inaccessible,” he said before top business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Establish clear rules because you are also stakeholders in the process of regulation.”

Now, for the first time, a terrorist group has been able to seize and hold both physical and digital territory, as Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, the search engine company’s think tank, noted at a December 1 seminar in Washington, D.C., held by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Anyone who thinks it isn’t on the minds of [technology] companies is seriously mistaken,” he said.

Google (GOOG) has worked with the European Union on a targeted advertising campaign: People who search for information on extremist Islam quickly saw Internet ads for an anti-ISIS cartoon on YouTube.

“We need to try a lot of small things, rather than one big thing,” Cohen added. “That’s how the tech community works.”

The one big thing techies fear most is a government-mandated end to strong encryption, either by requiring weaker encryption that the National Security Agency can quickly crack or a “back door” into encryption algorithms, the equivalent of a master key that authorities easily could use to decrypt phone and text messages.

Following the most recent Paris attacks, greater surveillance powers for government are getting a renewed push from leaders such as Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as well as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan and New York County district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

Recent signs of the push for heightened government surveillance:

The U.S. Senate in October passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, similar to a House-passed bill the White House has endorsed, allowing Internet providers to share with the government information they collect on their users while avoiding liability for privacy violations.The U.K. in November fast-tracked a proposed bill giving authorities greater access to customer information held by Internet providers.A new data-sharing agreement between the U.S. and the European Union giving law enforcement agencies greater transatlantic access to information on individuals is moving forward. The deal is proceeding even though Europe’s top court ruled in October that a broader pact governing commercial data transfers is illegal because the U.S. has weak privacy protections, compared with Europe.Pakistan imposed a new law requiring encrypted phones to have a back door in their software, allowing government agencies to read their contents, which forced BlackBerry to stop doing business there.

“Encryption of mobile communications presents a particularly tough problem,” Clinton said in a major homeland security-oriented campaign speech after the Paris attacks. “We should take the concerns of law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals seriously. They have warned that impenetrable encryption may prevent them from accessing terrorist communications and preventing a future attack. On the other hand, we know there are legitimate concerns about government intrusion, network security, and creating new vulnerabilities that bad actors can and would exploit. So we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary.”

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