In President Obama's prime-time speech on terrorism Sunday night, the message for technology companies was as clear as an "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster.
While touting his strategy to defeat the Islamic State, he mentioned only two new initiatives by his administration: a review of the visa program that allowed the female San Bernardino terrorist into the U.S., and renewed efforts to keep terrorists from using encryption and social media to advance their goals.
"And that's why I will urge high-tech and law-enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice," the president said.
The question is: Will tech leaders enlist in this effort, which could disrupt a global business model built on privacy and trust between customers and their computers.
"I'm not sure it's the role of tech companies to do things to help fight terrorism," said Francoise Gilbert, a partner in the Silicon Valley office of Greenberg Traurig and author of "Global Privacy and Security Law," a two-volume work on the subject. "Their role is to create technologies that work and are solid and not hackable."
Congress, and ultimately the Supreme Court, probably would have to mandate measures such as weaker encryption, given that the White House is unlikely to persuade tech companies to accept it voluntarily.
"We don't want our companies to be disadvantaged, but here and around the world (we) want to make sure that encryption is not utilized in a way that allows for a dark space for terrorist groups to be plotting operations and attacks," a senior administration official said in a background briefing for reporters, noting the administration has no plans to revisit a decision made in October to seek cooperation rather than legislation on encryption.
Silicon Valley and the government do have some ways they can work together to fight terrorism. "It's much more about analyzing traffic, communications, social media accountability and trying to identify high-risk individuals," said Alan Kessler, CEO of Vormetric, a data security firm in San Jose, California. "It's more of a data analytics problem and opportunity."
But when the use of social media crosses from expression of views to the plotting of terrorist acts, that is "a deeply concerning line that we believe has to be addressed," the unnamed senior administration official told reporters. "And there are cases that we believe that individuals should not have access to social media for that purpose."
Facebook (FB) acted quickly to remove a profile that apparently belonged to Tashfeen Malik, one of the San Bernardino terrorists, and social media companies reportedly have been quietly working for some time now with law-enforcement officials and others to delete terrorist propaganda.
But the one thing that's a nonstarter for the tech community is a mandate to create weaker encryption or a "back door" that would allow the government to snoop on data that terrorists want to keep secret.
"That's not something I would ever do as a company. It's too much of a risk," said Darren Guccione, CEO of Keeper Security, an encryption software firm based in Chicago. "People wouldn't buy it, they wouldn't trust it."