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Middle East, National Security

ISIS and American Tech Companies: Fighting the Online Battle

By: Nathan Meloon*

The militant Islamic group known as ISIS has been using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to communicate directly with recruits and to target recruits from Europe and the United States.[1] The social media forum appeals to Westerners and allows ISIS to convince them that they will not have to leave their Western comforts behind when they join ISIS and “help people.”[2] This strategy has proved to be very effective, as intelligence analysts estimate that as many as 30,000 people have traveled to the Middle East to fight for ISIS.[3]

Twitter has attempted to combat this problem by deleting ISIS’ official Twitter accounts as well as other ISIS-linked accounts.[4] However, this alone will be ineffective in obstructing the spread of ISIS’ message, especially because Twitter recently increased its users’ privacy rights.[5] Similarly, following the Edward Snowden leaks and the subsequent public outcry, many tech companies strengthened their data encryption. [6] With good reason, these companies wanted to reassure consumers that their data was in fact secure, and they also sought to safeguard against another post-Snowden backlash.[7] However, these efforts have made it more difficult for the United States and other governments to track ISIS and its recruiting efforts.[8]

To help prevent ISIS from spreading its message, international communications on these encrypted applications should be subject to disclosure under the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (“FISA”).[9] ISIS is covered under FISA as a foreign power, because it is “a group engaged in international terrorism or activities in preparation therefor.”[10] Under FISA, the NSA may obtain a search warrant for the records of a foreign person who is suspected of terrorism or other illegal activity that puts American National Security at risk.[11] But even with a FISA warrant, it is difficult for the US Government to access the information it needs without cooperation of the tech companies.[12]

Tech companies must do their part to help slow the growth of ISIS. Social media sites should change their terms of service to allow for disclosure in the case of suspected terrorist involvement. For example, their terms of service could state that while the user has a right to privacy, suspected involvement in terrorist organizations such as ISIS voids that right to privacy. Tech companies have the technology to monitor what its users say and do on the site, and in fact many of the sites already monitor what their customers say and do for the purpose of selling advertisements.[13]

By aggressively pursuing warrants under FISA and encouraging social networking sites to change their terms of service, perhaps the United States can be a successful roadblock to the recruiting efforts and advancement of ISIS.


[1] Louise Boyle, How Did ISIS Recruit Three Girls with a Love of Music and the Mall from Suburban Denver? FBI Studies how Terrorists are Radicalizing Westerners by Burrowing into Social Media, Daily Mail, (Nov. 13, 2014), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2833168/How-did-ISIS-recruit-three-teenage-girls-Colorado-FBI-investigates.html.

[2] Jethro Mullen, What is ISIS’ Appeal for Young People?, CNN, (Feb. 25, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/25/middleeast/isis-kids-propaganda/.

[3] Pamela Engel, One Thing that ISIS is Not Struggling with, Business Insider (Sep. 28, 2015), http://www.businessinsider.com/network-effect-isis-is-still-gaining-foreign-recruits-at-an-alarming-rate-2015-9.

[4] Rick Gladstone, Twitter Says It Suspended 10,000 ISIS-Linked Twitter Accounts in One Day, New York Times (Apr. 9, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/10/world/middleeast/twitter-says-it-suspended-10000-isis-linked-accounts-in-one-day.html?_r=0 A9 Apr. 10 paper

[5] Robert D. Richards, Compulsory Process in Cyberspace: Rethinking Privacy in the Social Networking Age, 36 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 519, 544- 548 (2013).

[6] Hannah Kuchler & Richard Waters, Cyber Insecurity: Going Dark, Financial Times (Jul. 30, 2015), http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/dd208424-3551-11e5-bdbb-35e55cbae175.html#axzz3oBdeJTyR.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See generally 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801-1885 (2015).

[10] 50 U.S.C. § 1801(a)(4) (2015).

[11] Glenn Greenwald & James Ball, The Top Secret Rules that Allow NSA to Use US Data Without a Warrant, The Guardian (June 20, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/20/fisa-court-nsa-without-warrant.

[12] Eric Bradner, ISIS Using Encryption to Evade FBI, CNN Politics (Jul. 8, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/08/politics/fbi-comey-isis-encryption-recruitment/.

[13] See, e.g., Catharine Smith, Google Ads Preferences Thinks It Knows Who You Are, What You Search, Huffington Post (Jan. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/27/google-ap-preference_n_1237054.html; Kerry Flynn, Yes, Twitter Scans Your Private Messages, But Did the Company Properly Disclose It?, International Business Times (Sep. 15, 2015), http://www.ibtimes.com/yes-twitter-scans-your-private-messages-did-company-properly-disclose-it-2098069; Paul Bentley, Facebook ‘Snoops On Your Private Inbox’: Site Sued over Claim It is Scanning and Selling Details, Daily Mail (Jan 3. 2014), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2533542/Facebook-snoops-private-inbox.html.


*Edited by Christine Sanders

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