President Obama and Hillary Clinton made statements on Sunday indicating that the post-San Bernardino focus on rooting out radicalized individuals is going to lead to heightened pressure on social media sites and tech companies that provide unbreakable end-to-end encryption.
In his Oval Office speech on Sunday night about the fight against ISIS, President Obama devoted one line in his speech to the topic. “I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” he said.
Meanwhile, Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, gave a talk at the Brookings Institution where she urged tech companies to deny ISIS “online space,” and waved away concerns about First Amendment issues.
“We’re going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy [ISIS’s] would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space,” she said.
“And this is complicated. You’re going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we’ve got to shut off their means of communicating. It’s more complicated with some of what they do on encrypted apps, and I’m well aware of that, and that requires even more thinking about how to do it.”
A “senior administration official” told Reuters that the White House intends to talk to tech companies in the coming days about developing a “clearer understanding of when we believe social media is being used actively and operationally to promote terrorism.” Major social media sites are already deeply engaged in combating online propaganda and recruitment by Islamic militants.
But Obama’s comments were also clearly related to end-to-end encryption, a once rare but now increasingly common method that assures people that anyone intercepting their communications will simply see a series of seemingly random characters. (Significantly, even the best encryption does not preclude law enforcement or other actors from accessing those communications by hacking a target’s devices, something that is particularly easy for organizations like the FBI or NSA.)