Countering Extremists Online Remains Elusive In Congress

Fighting violent extremism online will be the focus of private briefings this week for members of the U.S. Congress from law enforcement officials and Silicon Valley executives, as Washington struggles to formulate a coherent strategy.

The classified briefings, scheduled weeks ago, come as Washington policymakers grow increasingly alarmed at how the Islamic State militant group uses technology to recruit online and evade surveillance detection.

Figuring out what to do about it within the boundaries of U.S. privacy law is a puzzle that has baffled authorities for years. Congress does not appear to be much closer to solving it.

Since the attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Paris, there is heightened bipartisan interest in encryption and whether authorities should be able to get around it, but this was not translating into any specific policy push.

The San Bernardino attack, which killed 14, is being investigated by the FBI as an "act of terrorism" by radicalized Muslims and last month's attacks in Paris, which killed 130, have been claimed by Islamic State.

A senior Obama administration official said on Sunday that the White House was not looking to renew a push for requiring high-tech companies to grant authorities "backdoor" access to encrypted messages. That push was scrapped months ago amid opposition from technology firms and privacy advocates.

On another track, a bill was introduced on Tuesday that would require social media companies to report online terrorist activity to law enforcement. The measure from senators Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and Richard Burr, a Republican, was expected to face an uphill climb.

FBI General Counsel James Baker and Amy Hess, the agency's chief computer scientist, were scheduled to brief House Judiciary Committee members on Wednesday. That classified session will be followed by another briefing with senior officials from Google (now Alphabet Inc), Apple Inc and other industry representatives.

An encryption briefing for members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee took place on Tuesday.

An intense dialogue has been under way in Washington between the National Security Council, and technology companies.

In addition to Google and Apple, other players include Twitter and Facebook. All have been used by jihadists and are leery of offering too much hope they could weed out propaganda before it appears.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sandra Maler)

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