In the Oval Office address Sunday night, President Barack Obama said he would seek cooperation from tech and law enforcement leaders to thwart terrorists in their use of communications technology to hatch plots.
Companies like Apple and WhatsApp encrypt users’ call histories or text messages, scrambling the information so that hackers, including governments, can’t get access.
Some tech and privacy experts are concerned the president could push tech companies to give the government its own window onto encrypted communications, arguing that would weaken protections for all consumers.
“It’s sort of like having a window in your house,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Everybody can look in that window; everybody can potentially break that window. There’s no way to build a private window that only one or two people would have access to.”
Others are concerned the government might get more involved in policing social media accounts, which companies already monitor on their own, to varying degrees, for potential terrorist activity.
J.M. Berger, co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” has studied the terrorist group’s use of social media. He said letting governments decide when to take down social media sites can be a slippery slope.
“The two countries that of late have been very active in asking social media companies to take social media accounts down are Turkey and Russia,” he said. “And their definition of who’s a terrorist and whose speech should be allowed are very different from what we would think.”
Still, Berger said there are big data tools that can assess terrorist activity, and social media companies might be more skilled in using them than the government.
So he said a meeting of the sides could be fruitful, though he said it would be best if civil liberties groups could participate, too.
At a briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama is aware of the civil liberties issues at stake and doesn’t want to violate them.
“At the same time,” he said, “the people who designed these communication tools didn’t design them to aid and abet a terrorist.”
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