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U.S. recruits tech leaders to help disrupt ISIS

Last Updated Jan 8, 2016 1:03 PM EST

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- With extremists finding fertile ground for recruitment online, the White House is dispatching top national security officials to Silicon Valley to seek the tech industry's help in disrupting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups.

At a high-level session on Friday, leaders from major technology and Internet companies will discuss ways to use technology to stop terrorists from radicalizing people online and spurring them to violence, according to a meeting agenda obtained by The Associated Press.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are slated to attend the meeting, along with President Barack Obama's chief of staff and his top counterterrorism adviser.

The meeting in San Jose, California, comes as the Obama administration tries to beef up cooperation with social media groups and online companies whose platforms are often used by extremists to attract followers, disseminate their message and organize attacks.

Mr. Obama said in a recent speech that he planned to "urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice."

At Friday's session, government officials plan to brief technology experts on how terrorists use technology, including encryption. They'll also discuss ways the government and tech companies can "help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut ISIL," the agenda says, using an alternative acronym for ISIS. Another goal is to identify ways for law enforcement to better identify terrorists online and stop them from carrying out attacks.

"The Administration has been clear about the importance of government and industry working together to confront terrorism but we do not have any specific meetings to announce or preview at this time," a senior Obama administration official told CBS News foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan.

Increasingly, digital platforms have become tools of radicalization used by ISIS, a group Obama recently denounced as "bunch of killers with good social media." Slick online magazines, highly produced videos and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have all played roles in the group's propaganda machine.

Cybersecurity expert David Gewirtz says it's important for tech companies and the government to open up two-way lines of communications on the issue.

"It's not just up to tech companies being more responsive to the government -- the government has to be more responsive to tech companies," Gewirtz told CBS News in an email. "Regular rank-and-file IT professionals don't have a reliable reporting or dialogue infrastructure with appropriate security professionals, which would allow those on our tech front lines a way to pass along possibly crucial observations."

He also suggested that companies could make it easier for their millions of users to report suspicious posts online. "Right now, it's hard for consumers and users to escalate 'that ain't right' reports to the tech companies. Tech companies could effectively crowd-source the prevention of this behavior by making it easier for consumers to escalate observations of this behavior, combined with good artificial intelligence to process and filter the reports to filter out the spurious ones, making what's left manageable for internal company security professionals to act upon."

Twitter revised its rules of conduct last month to emphasize that it prohibits violent threats and abusive behavior by users, promising a tough stance at a time when critics are calling for the online service to adopt a harder line against extremists.

The new policy said Twitter will suspend or shutter any user account that engages in "hateful conduct" or whose "primary purpose is inciting harm towards others." The company previously said users could not promote or threaten violence and in April added a ban on "promotion of terrorism."

Under "hateful conduct," the new policy warns users: "You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease."

After last month's shooting in San Bernardino, California, Facebook found messages sent by 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik around the time of the attack that included a pledge of allegiance to ISIS' leader, although there were no indications ISIS had directed the attack.

But confronting ISIS on the Internet has raised difficult questions for U.S. policymakers about how to balance counterterrorism against privacy, civil liberties and the hands-off tradition that has fueled the Internet's growth. Especially controversial is the federal government's desire for a way to circumvent encryption technology that individuals use to protect their privacy but terrorists can exploit to keep their actions hidden from law enforcement.

In Congress, lawmakers have introduced legislation requiring social media companies to report online to law enforcement any terrorist activity they detect, such as planning, recruiting or distribution of terrorist material. But tech industry representatives have said new laws could result in excessive burdens and over-reporting of unhelpful data, complicating their efforts to detect legitimate threats.