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By Dustin Volz and Deepa Seetharaman
U.S. national-security officials traveled to Silicon Valley last week to forge deeper ties with big tech companies in hopes of better protecting the 2020 election from foreign intervention. It didn't go entirely as planned.
At the meeting organized by Facebook Inc. at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Shelby Pierson -- named over the summer to lead the U.S. intelligence community's new election-threats group -- delivered a blunt message to the assembled executives: You need to share more data with us about your users.
The executives and other U.S. officials in the room were caught off guard by Ms. Pierson's assertion, according to people in attendance or briefed on the conversation. After a tense moment, another official explained that privacy law limited what social-media platforms could hand over to spy agencies.
A Twitter Inc. executive then offered a rebuke: The Trump administration was failing to share enough information with tech firms about election threats, not the other way around, the executive told the room.
Publicly, the companies in attendance -- Facebook, Alphabet Inc.'s Google and YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft Corp. -- said the daylong meeting was constructive.
But privately, some tech staffers and U.S. officials found the exchange troubling, people familiar with the meeting said, adding that it was unusual to see government officials contradict one another so openly. Some said they worried it could undo some of the progress made to forge a more unified front against the scourge of foreign disinformation since, according to the U.S., Russia unleashed bots and trolls on social media during the 2016 election.
Moscow interfered in "sweeping and systemic fashion" in the 2016 election in an effort to boost then-candidate Donald Trump's chances, according to the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller. Moscow has denied election interference.
In a statement, a senior U.S. intelligence official said the meeting with Ms. Pierson, who works under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was "collectively viewed as a positive step" toward continued collaboration.
"The invitation from our industry partners to discuss our shared commitment to free and fair elections represents an important signal of forward progress," the official said. "It is vital we have open and honest conversations about what government and industry can learn from each other to better understand the tactics and intentions of our adversaries seeking to undermine our democratic process, while safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties of users."
A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment.
Technology companies and various federal agencies have taken strides to increase collaboration on addressing foreign interference since the last presidential election. Those improvements paid off during the 2018 midterms, when Facebook and other platforms dismantled small networks of suspected foreign-backed disinformation accounts based on tips from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But the progress hasn't always been easy. The tech giants remain wary of appearing too cooperative with security agencies more than six years after disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden showed how companies supported classified surveillance programs.
The FBI, Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, meanwhile, have sought to cajole social-media firms into more actively policing their networks while sharing more information about what they find, even as regulatory agencies slap companies with record-setting billion-dollar fines for privacy violations. The Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and state law-enforcement officials also have recently launched various antitrust probes into Facebook and Alphabet.
"I'm going to guess that both sides think the other is still holding out on them," said Adam Segal, author of a book on the relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington and the director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They're both under significant pressure to make sure  doesn't happen again."
Some people familiar with the exchange last week involving Ms. Pierson said it reflected a healthy friction between government and the private sector and that the most important thing is that the two sides are hashing out issues 14 months before voters go to the polls. Before 2016, there was virtually no dialogue about foreign election interference on social media, these people said.
Amid the fallout prompted by 2016, several government agencies have created new efforts to fight foreign election interference. FBI Director Christopher Wray created a Foreign Influence Task Force in 2017 consisting of counterintelligence and cybersecurity personnel to tackle the threat posed by Russia and other hostile foreign nations seeking to use social media or other means to influence U.S. domestic politics or amplify societal divisions. The National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command created a Russia Small Group, recently made permanent, that launched cyber operations against the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency during the 2018 midterms.
The companies also have sought to improve their systems for finding and eliminating disinformation.
Facebook in particular has become better equipped to respond to disinformation campaigns, said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University professor who studies election integrity. The company has developed machine-learning algorithms to identify inauthentic behavior, has placed restrictions on political advertising and has regularly taken down clusters of accounts that it has associated with information operations. "The capacity of the tech firms is dramatically different from what it was in 2016," he said.
Still, barriers remain when it comes to information sharing, Mr. Persily said. "They can't just turn over all of Facebook's data and Twitter and Google's data to the government."
April Doss, a former intelligence lawyer at the National Security Agency, said swapping information about election disinformation is far more challenging than traditional partnerships established to share intelligence about more conventional cyber threats, which raised fewer privacy concerns and involved more neatly defined adversaries.
"This is such a complicated space," said Ms. Doss, who served as senior counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation until last year and is now a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP. "Our traditional models of public-private interaction really don't have a template for how to handle this."
Questions have persisted about whether the platforms have done enough to prepare for 2020, or if the Trump administration has focused enough on the problem. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release a report in coming weeks reviewing Russia's disinformation campaign in 2016 and recommending ways to improve responses for future elections, according to a congressional aide.
--Robert McMillan contributed to this article.
Write to Dustin Volz at email@example.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 13, 2019 14:50 ET (18:50 GMT)
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