State Department

More collaboration with tech companies needed to counter Islamic State online

The State Department wants to increase collaboration with the private sector and push for more data analytics on what is and is not working in its efforts to counter the Islamic State online, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel said at a New America Foundation event on Dec. 16.

"We have to be more data-driven in government," Stengel said.

He outlined some of the department's goals when it comes to adapting to the evolving threats posed by groups such as the Islamic State and said officials are making progress. For instance, the United States has collaborated with the United Arab Emirates to launch a social media center in the Middle East, known as the Sawab Center, with the goal of engaging with potential Islamic State recruits online.

Stengel, a former journalist and editor, said the "information environment has radically changed" and noted that the State Department is intensifying its outreach but needs to further tap overseas partners for help, boost its campaigns and increase collaboration with the private sector, in particular technology companies.

"The tech companies don't want their ecosystem polluted by this horrible, violent imagery," he said. "We don't want it either." Stengel called the companies the unsung heroes in efforts to counter the Islamic State.

The perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., were initially reported to have used social media to announce their allegiance to the Islamic State. But FBI Director James Comey said on Dec. 16 there was no evidence that they had done so.

Nevertheless, U.S. lawmakers are alarmed by terrorists' increasing use of encrypted software to communicate and have started introducing legislation to enhance surveillance efforts.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill Dec. 15 that would require the Department of Homeland Security to thoroughly review the social media activities of foreign travelers to the United States.

Earlier this month, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman and vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, respectively, introduced legislation that would require social media companies to alert law enforcement to terrorist activity or incitement on their services.

Stengel said the State Department has observed the migration of Islamic State messaging from public-facing to private one-to-one and sometimes encrypted platforms, such as Telegram, WhatsApp and others. That shift allows the group to sow the seeds of militancy outside the public gaze but hinders its ability to reach large audiences.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Dec. 16 that earlier this year DHS had started consulting social media with regard to certain immigration cases. He added that although there are some legal limits to what officials can do, they should be doing more of it.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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