The Cable

FBI Director: For Would-Be Terrorists, Twitter Is the ‘Devil on Their Shoulder’

FBI Director James Comey accused Twitter of being the main conduit for Islamic State recruitment on Wednesday and said the social media site amounted to the “devil on their shoulder” for extremist sympathizers around the world.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 19:  Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey addresses the Intelligence and National Security Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel September 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. After one year on the job, Comey outlined his vision for the future of the FBI, including a bigger focus on cyber and the creation of a new intelligence office within the bureau.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 19: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey addresses the Intelligence and National Security Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel September 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. After one year on the job, Comey outlined his vision for the future of the FBI, including a bigger focus on cyber and the creation of a new intelligence office within the bureau. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

FBI Director James Comey accused Twitter of being the main conduit for Islamic State recruitment on Wednesday and said the social media site amounted to the “devil on their shoulder” for extremist sympathizers around the world.

“ISIL is reaching out, primarily through Twitter, to about 21,000 English-language followers,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee, using an acronym for the extremist group. “It buzzes in their pocket … a device, almost a devil on their shoulder, all day long saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill.’”

Comey noted that the Islamic State’s recruitment techniques differ from al Qaeda’s, which invests more heavily in spectacular attacks against Western landmarks. The Islamic State’s message is “two-pronged: Come to the so-called caliphate … and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.”

“I cannot see me stopping these indefinitely,” he added.

The FBI chief’s unusually pointed warning about one of the most successful American social media companies came during congressional testimony about the dangers of encryption technologies that prevent law enforcement from accessing data on Americans’ smartphones.

In recent months, Silicon Valley and U.S. law enforcement agencies have been at loggerheads over new versions of smartphone operating systems from Google, Apple, and other firms that offer default encryption the companies themselves can’t break. Privacy advocates have championed the software as an important bulwark against government surveillance and cybercrime, but law enforcement officials such as Comey worry that forensic data needed to solve crimes or thwart terrorist attacks will “go dark.”

“We have on a new scale seen mainstream products and services designed in a way that gives users sole control over access to their data,” said Comey. “As a result, law enforcement is sometimes unable to recover the content of electronic communications from the technology provider even in response to a court order or duly-authorized warrant issued by a federal judge.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called firms such as Apple and Google “irresponsible” for purposefully designing software that deters authorities from obtaining Americans’ phone data.

Previously, tech firms provided data to law enforcement officials who obtained a warrant. But a flurry of concerns about intrusive government surveillance and cyberbreaches pushed the companies to disable their ability to decrypt smartphone data, an effort aimed at improving user data security.

Comey emphasized that he’s “not here to fight a war” with U.S. technology firms and that the Justice Department “will always be committed to protecting the liberty” of the American public. But critics have accused the FBI of using the threat of the Islamic State and other terrorist attacks to erode civil liberties.

The Senate panel broadly praised Comey’s efforts to seek a compromise with technology firms that protects user data while allowing law enforcement officials to extract data from phones after receiving a warrant from a judge, though some had harsh words for the companies themselves.

“I am aware of what you’re doing, and I just want you to know how grateful I believe Americans are for this service,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. “It isn’t easy, I know.”

While Comey has previously called on Congress to impose a “regulatory or legislative fix” on technology companies, on Wednesday he said his first preference would be to engage Silicon Valley to find a solution that doesn’t involve Congress.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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