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Social Media and Counterterrorism

JohnAug 3, 2018, 4:01:32 AM

By John Ottman, Chairman and Co-founder, Minds, Inc.

The mainstream media is alive since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks with interviews by government and security officials from countries around the globe calling for restrictions on Internet freedoms to combat terrorism. From the Sunday news talk shows to the editorial pages, government operatives from the various defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are reciting similar talking points on the urgent need to curtail social media freedoms such as encryption, free speech and privacy in the name of counterterrorism.

US Presidential candidates are weighing in with strong rhetoric as well. On Sunday, Hillary Clinton, an Internet security pariah herself, called for social media companies to become more aggressive enforcing national security.

“Resolve means depriving jihadists of virtual territory, just as we act to deprive them of actual territory,” she told an audience at the Brookings Institution. “They are using websites, social media, chat rooms, and other platforms to celebrate beheadings, recruit future terrorists and call for attacks. We should work with host companies to shut them down.” 1

A day later, though somewhat muted by his other announcement to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Donald Trump announced, “We have to go see Bill Gates,” to see about “closing the Internet up in some way."

Then yesterday, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced the Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act, a bill to require technology companies to report online terrorist activity to law enforcement.

The bill requires that if companies become aware of terrorist activity such as attack planning, recruitment or distribution of terrorist material, they must report that information to law enforcement. Proponents suggest the provision is modeled on a law that requires technology companies to report online child pornography when they become aware of it. 

Notably, the amped rhetoric occurs only one week after the NSA’s bulk phone metadata program ended. In May 2015, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the call-records program was illegal and unconstitutional. In ACLU vs. Clapper the Court ruled that the NSA’s digital dragnet violated American’s right to privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, as well as the freedoms of speech and association protected by the First Amendment.

Weeks later, on June 1, 2015, Section 215 of the Patriot Act expired, and the next day, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act by overwhelming majority in both Houses which amended Section 215 to prohibit the bulk collection of Americans’ call records.

Complaints are emerging over violations of the Second Amendment as well. The US Government has for years classified encryption technology as a “munition” for import and export control reasons. Since the use of encryption to protect sensitive user data from cyber attack is now widespread, Internet companies are insisting that any measures to restrict the use of encryption or to create “back doors” into encryption algorithms constitutes a violation of their right to bear arms to protect themselves.

The age-old argument, originally framed by the authors of the US Constitution, has been raised yet again, “How much essential liberty is worth giving up for a sense of temporary safety?”

What an enormous irony that in the name of national security, Senator Feinstein’s proposed legislation represents such a challenge to the critical security provisions of the US Constitution. The Senator's bill seeks to compel social media companies to actively participate in the US Government’s counterterrorism program through mandates on censorship, warrantless search and seizure, enhanced surveillance, and restrictions on the use of encryption technology.

Lost in the reality show theatrics played out nightly by US Presidential candidates is the fact that social media companies are already engaged and helping, and in some cases are paying a significant price as a result.

It is well known that Facebook alerted authorities just hours after the San Bernardino shootings regarding a post by one of the shooters. But Facebook users are wary that the social media giant now operates one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems ever devised which includes facial recognition of every photo. Twitter recently took down over 300 suspected ISIS accounts only to receive multiple death threats against its CEO.2

So, what are the responsibilities of social media companies for counterterrorism? Should social media companies be required to hire staff and take on the legal, marketing and personal security risks of doing the job of law enforcement?

At Minds we see our role and responsibility for counterterrorism in three areas:

First, Minds will aggressively protect the privacy, free speech, and right to bear arms of its users as guaranteed by the First, Second and Fourth Amendments. We view enhanced censorship and surveillance efforts thru encryption “backdoors” as making Minds and the Internet less safe for all users, not more.

Second, as a US company Minds supports the law of the land. So, if Senator Feinstein or Presidential hopefuls succeed in their efforts to nudge the US Constitution aside, then Minds would be compelled to comply. Regrettably, the trust our users place in us to protect their privacy and freedoms will suffer as a result. We cannot project whether the costs to launch a counterterrorism program as required by law are affordable.

Third, Minds will continue to innovate new tools and technologies to enhance the safety and security of our users while at the same time protecting privacy and free speech. Examples of such tools available today include blocking and reporting users, as well as monitoring and filtering newsfeeds for illegal content. 

Minds.com is recognized for security innovation regarding encryption, open content and open source software. We view an effective program for counterterrorism in social media as requiring the following essential principles:  

  • Weakening encryption makes everyone less secure. We cannot create a back door, a front door, or any other kind of door for the United States government that cannot be exploited by malicious hackers and other foreign governments as well. Security experts agree on this point.

  • Forcing American companies to compromise the security of their own products hurts U.S. business interests and creates distrust and uncertainty for consumers who might use American technology.

  • Undermining encryption in the United States will primarily affect everyday users who have done nothing wrong. Bad actors will simply move overseas or to social media networks in countries where such restrictions do not apply. 3

  • Open source software is essential for Internet security and privacy. Because proprietary software cannot be inspected or peer reviewed for malware, only open source software may be verified as trustworthy and safe for social media applications.

While counterterrorism has reignited the age old debate of security versus privacy, the recommendations set forth by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to the US Congress are undaunted that liberty should always be a higher priority than security. In their own words:

"Those that surrender essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither." 


John Ottman is Co-­Founder & Chairman of Minds, Inc. and brings over 30 years of software industry experience. He is also Executive Chairman of Solix Technologies, Inc.. Prieviously, he was President & CEO at Application Security, Inc. (Trustwave), President at Princeton Softech (IBM), and Executive Vice President, Worldwide Markets at Corio (IBM). He  also held key executive roles at Oracle, IBM  and Wang  Labs. John graduated from Denison University and is author of the book Save the Database, Save the World!



1. The New York Times, Terrorists Mock Bids to End Use of Social Media, Nicole Perlroth and Mike Issac, December 8, 2015, p. A18

2. Ibid

3. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/12/save-crypto-tell-white-house-we-cant-sacrifice-security