US Government Questions Tech Companies on Ways to Predict Shootings From Social Media


Top officials in the Trump administration expressed interest in tools that might anticipate mass shootings or predict attackers by scanning social media posts, photos and videos during a meeting Friday with tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The technology could serve as an early-warning system for potential attacks, White House officials proposed at the brainstorming session, perhaps compiling information from across social sites to identify attacks before they happen, according to three people familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss a private gathering on the record.

In response, though, tech leaders expressed doubt that such technology is feasible, while raising concerns about the privacy risks that such a system might create for all users, two of the sources said.

The exchanges came as part of a White House event to explore the rise of violent online extremism, one of the Trump administration’s first endeavors to try to combat the global digital scourge. Administration officials convened the meeting – attended by representatives from Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, as well as their main lobbying group – days after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead. The alleged shooter is believed to have uploaded an anti-Hispanic manifesto to an anonymous forum, 8chan, before opening fire at a Walmart.

In the aftermath of the attack, President Donald Trump pledged to “do something about” online extremism. Speaking Monday, he said the government would “work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

By meeting with tech companies on Friday – a session Trump did not attend, opting instead for two fundraisers – the administration appeared to signal its in the early stages of trying to make good on the president’s pledge. White House officials also asked tech giants to submit their own recommendations in the coming weeks, the three sources said.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, declined Friday to provide specifics on what was discussed at the meeting. In a tweeted statement, he said the conversation focused on “how technology can be leveraged to identify potential threats, to provide help to individuals exhibiting potentially violent behavior, [and] to combat domestic terror.”

Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents those companies, called the session productive. “As technology companies, we will continue to collaborate across industry, government, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to address hate and extremism in our society, and we commend the White House for convening a meeting on this important matter,” said Michael Beckerman, its chief executive, in a statement.

Many of the tech companies in attendance sought to stress their existing work to spot and remove obscene or illegal posts, photos and videos, including hate speech, terrorist propaganda and explicit threats of violence. Facebook, Google and Twitter have faced the most pressure globally in the eyes of regulators who feel they are forums for radicalization ahead of attacks -and for spreading conspiracy theories once those tragedies occur.

In doing so, tech companies raised alarms about services such as Gab, which has become a social network for the alt right, as well as 8chan. Both have ties to recent mass shootings in the United States – yet neither was represented at the White House meeting Friday.

© The Washington Post 2019

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