One of the nation’s top national security officials is calling on tech companies to be a little more creative when it comes to cracking down on terror recruitment.
Mary McCord, the acting head of the Justice Department’s powerful National Security Division, said on Tuesday that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter should work to develop technology that could preemptively block terror recruitment posts before they get posted. Currently, social media companies remove postings and block users after they post content trying to recruit people to join ISIS or launch attacks. McCord told an audience at George Washington University that she thinks companies are doing great work—but that they may soon be able to do better.
“Most creative and brightest and most brilliant mathematicians to the question of denying a platform to ISIS,” she said.
“I encourage them to put even more effort into automation, machine learning, bringing, again, the best and the brightest mathematicians to machine learning to see if there aren’t ways to prevent certain content—the most violent, the most inciteful to terrorism—to keep that from ever posting,” she said. “That will be the next wave. I realize there are challenges. I’m just telling you what’s on my wish list.”
Her remarks were the keynote of the university’s Internet Extremism Symposium, where McCord discussed the challenges law enforcement officers face trying to combat terror recruitment on social media. She said the Justice Department is pressing charges in 130 cases that are public, with very young defendants. Half of the defendants in these cases are under 25, she said, and one third of the defendants are under 21.
“I’m not sure we have a case pending now where social media isn’t a component,” she added, noting that defendants use social networks to watch videos by radical clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki, share propaganda, plan attacks, or chat with ISIS members in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS literally crowdsources terrorism,” she said.
And she added that she’s optimistic Silicon Valley will develop technologies to preemptively staunch their recruitment efforts.
“I’m a firm believer that practically anything is possible in the tech world,” she said, “so I’ve got a lot of faith in the people much smarter than me, that they will figure this out.”
McCord also tacitly suggested the federal law enforcement doesn’t always do an effective job countering radicalization, and that the private sector has an obligation to help out.
“The government can do a lot of things, but what we’re not good at is messaging,” she added. “We have that label, that stamp, ‘U.S. government’ on us, and as much as that might be something very desirable in some contexts, it doesn’t sell very well to some of the folks we’re trying to address when it comes to this.”
As acting head of the DOJ’s National Security Division, McCord oversees counterterror and counter-espionage prosecutions—including the recent indictment of two Russian intelligence officials in the 2014 Yahoo hacks. And President Donald Trump seems to be having trouble finding her replacement—a move he could announce anytime, since the heads of the Justice Department’s different divisions are political appointees who the Senate confirms. President Barack Obama named his pick for the job two days after his inauguration, but Trump still hasn’t picked anyone for it. The lengthy vacancy has generated lots of gossip in D.C.’s national security legal world, with many speculating that Trump is having trouble filling the position because so many Republican lawyers and national security experts signed anti-Trump letters during the campaign—meaning they won’t pass his strenuous loyalty tests.
The prolonged vacancy has kept McCord in powerful role by default. And she hasn’t been shy about using that role to push for the greatest cooperation possible between law enforcement and the tech sector.