- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A would-be tool for counterterrorism officials has been nixed by a Senate Intelligence Committee decision to abandon an attempt to force tech companies into reporting questionable user content to the authorities.

The removal of Section 608 from next year’s Intelligence Authorization Act means senators can now proceed with the bill after a 56-day hold brought courtesy of Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.

But moving forward without the provision means lawmakers have lost one of their latest attempts at gaining new ground in its online fight against terrorist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Section 608 called for tech companies to notify law enforcement of users who obtain “actual knowledge of any terrorist activity.” Absent specific details, however, critics — including Mr. Wyden and a coalition of digital rights and civil liberties groups — decried the language as vague, dangerous and detrimental to the privacy of every person with a social media account.

“Going after terrorist recruitment and activity online is a serious mission that demands a serious response from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” Mr. Wyden said. “Social media companies aren’t qualified to judge which posts amount to ‘terrorist activity,’ and they shouldn’t be forced against their will to create a Facebook Bureau of Investigations to police their users’ speech.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, told The Hill through her spokesman that she’ll continue efforts to keep terrorists off social media. Previously she said sites like Twitter and Facebook should be required to proactively monitor their sites and alert the FBI when they identify or remove certain content.

Just as the Department of Defense is persistently pursuing advancements in military technology options for its fight against the Islamic State, federal officials are considering all their options with regard to keeping an eye on the terror group’s digital footprint.

The Department of Homeland Security said the group uses social media to propagate its message to a global, infinite audience, with an emphasis on those “who seek to legitimize its actions while burnishing an image of strength and power.”

FBI Director James B. Comey said that the group’s investment in social media is “what I worry about all day long.”

Yet the nature of social media — specifically the “social” component — means any content posted or tweeted to make its rounds across the ever-expanding Web instantaneously. And while it provides an outlet for propaganda, it also lets authorities get closer to criminal suspects than ever before by creating a public repository of open source intelligence that can be exploited like no other types of evidence ever could.

When online activity becomes out of reach, companies are routinely subpoenaed for user records during criminal investigations, terror-related or otherwise.

In the last half of 2014, Twitter, Google and Facebook received a total of 46,016 requests for user records, and each responded with at least some information around 80 percent of the time. According to critics of Section 608, these companies could have been compelled to hand over records regardless of whether a warrant exists, burdening service providers and users alike.

The tech companies that would have had to adhere to the abandoned “terrorist activity” provision also face pleas from government officials who say Apple and Google products are keeping authorities from deciphering the conversations of cybercriminals and terrorists.

Now, as the debate between security and privacy wages on stateside, British officials are considering a way to keep terrorist activity off social media as well. Earlier this week, Andrew Parker, the director general of the British Security Service, said social media companies have an “ethical responsibility” to help authorities with investigations.

“I think there is a real question about whether companies holding information of that sort, under what arrangements they should come forward to the authorities and share and report it,” Mr. Parker told BBC.

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