Amid fresh concerns about terrorism in the West, British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to press President Barack Obama Friday on getting American technology companies like Google and Facebook to allow governments to snoop on encrypted communications.
Obama and Cameron will meet at the White House the week after 17 people died in terror attacks in France spurred by a satirical newspaper's caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Fears of additional attacks by Islamic extremists grew Thursday, when police in Belgium killed two suspects during an anti-terror raid launched to pre-empt what officials called a major impending attack.
Cameron has argued that intelligence agencies must be able to intercept terror suspects' communications on encrypted social media and messaging sites. However, his view has struck a nerve in the U.S. and in Britain, countries that both have grappled to find a balance between security and privacy.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest wouldn't say whether Obama would support a government "backdoor" to get around encryption and allow authorities to monitor communications that might help to protect national security, but Earnest said the issue surely would arise in Obama's meeting with Cameron.
"I think our British counterparts would agree that it is imperative that we properly balance the need for government, intelligence agencies and national security agencies to access to certain kinds of information to try to protect their citizens," Earnest said.
Cameron arrived Thursday evening at the White House, and after being greeted by Obama in the Oval Office, the two sat down for a working dinner of herb-encrusted lamb and pickled wild mushrooms, with warm pear cake for dessert. On Friday, they were to hold a more formal meeting in the Oval Office before taking questions from the American and British press.
While Cameron's trip to the U.S. was planned before the attacks in France, his visit is seen by the White House as an opportunity to show trans-Atlantic solidarity in the fight against terrorism.
"The terrorists know only how to destroy, but together we can do something infinitely more powerful: build security, strengthen justice and advance peace," Obama and Cameron wrote in The Times of London in an opinion piece in advance of Cameron's visit. "The United States and Britain will continue to work closely with all those who believe in peace and tolerance."
The White House said the leaders also would discuss the global economy and cybersecurity, another matter that has taken on fresh relevance following November's hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the U.S. blamed on North Korea.
Ahead of the visit, Cameron announced that the U.S. and U.K. will stage cyber "war games" together and launch a joint "cyber cell," where officials from the FBI and the National Security Agency will team up with Britain's GCHQ and MI5 intelligence and security agencies to share information on cyberthreats. The first round of war games, scheduled for later this year, will simulate an attack on banks and the financial sectors in London and New York, with more exercises to follow later to test the resilience of national infrastructure.
"This is about pooling our effort so we stay one step ahead of those who seek to attack us," Cameron said.