Cybersecurity and digital rights have become a prominent part of the national conversation, in no small part because of the ongoing standoff between Apple and the FBI over a San Bernardino terrorist’s encrypted iPhone. So it is bit surprising that the remaining presidential candidates haven’t made much an effort to outline their positions.
Not that there would be much political benefit to it. The two candidates with the most clearly defined cybersecurity and privacy platforms—Ben Carson and Jeb Bush—have quit the race, and the two with the least to say on the subject—Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—are leading the GOP race.
But the fact the candidates don’t seem to care all that much doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Here’s where they stand so far on one of the most important issues of this race.
The Remaining GOP Field
The extent to which Trump can be said to have a defined position on anything beyond America’s decline, and how negotiation will be its panacea, is limited. He has no official position paper on cybersecurity or privacy, and it’s not among his favored stump speech topics.
When Trump does address cybersecurity, it’s through a familiar lens: China. Trump accuses the nation and its citizens of “rampant cybercrime” against the US, and promises “stronger protections against Chinese hackers” as part of his position paper on the US-China trade relationship.
Otherwise, Trump’s positions have been scattered, misguided, or both. He has proposed, at varying times, “closing” parts of the Internet to combat ISIS and boycotting Apple in response to its FBI encryption standoff (the irony is Trump—or someone on his team—tweets from an iOS device). In 2013, he suggested that execution may be an appropriate punishment for Edward Snowden. He has said he believes in a balance of privacy and security, but also that bulk metadata collection should be restored, to “err on the side of security.”
TL;DR: Trump’s cybersecurity and privacy considerations are much like his other viewpoints: Generally devoid of context, insight, clarity, or reason.
Like Trump, Ted Cruz offers no official position paper on cybersecurity. And while one might think that his role as a senator would at least leave a trail of votes leading to his stances, Cruz was, along with fellow candidate Marco Rubio, out of town for a debate when the Senate voted on Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a controversial, privacy-invading bill that ultimately became law as part of a budget bill. In fact, not only did Cruz not vote on CISA, he maybe didn’t even read it?
But there is one piece of Cruz’s record that helps illustrate his privacy record. As one of the co-sponsors of the USA Freedom Act, he helped end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records.
This doesn’t make Cruz a privacy crusader, though. If anything, it’s an example of his ability to play whatever angle is politically providential. On his site, Cruz trumpets that the law “ensures that the government does not become a massive surveillance state that infringes on the rights of law-abiding citizens.” Yet over the course of several Republican primary debates, he stressed that while the USA Freedom Act limits the NSA’s ability to collect phone records directly, it ultimately gives the agency indirect access, maintained by the carriers, covering nearly every call made in the United States.
Cruz has said that he doesn’t believe in creating “backdoors” to access any iPhone. He does, though, along with the rest of the GOP field, side with the FBI in the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, indicating he has bought the FBI’s argument that this case is about just one phone—a stance experts, and some other politicians, strongly contend is flawed.
TL;DR: Cruz’s cybersecurity positions are hard to pin down, which should let him tack toward whatever’s more politically popular going forward.
Here’s our first candidate with an explicit Internet policy, one that tries to walk the line between security and civil liberties.
A Rubio administration would “encourage information sharing between the federal government and the private sector to adequately respond to cyber threats, while maintaining privacy protections,” according to his position statement. Rubio would also “use American power to respond harshly to international cyber attacks on American citizens, businesses, and governments.” Rubio focuses on readying our military for cyber threats, both defensively and in the event of the need for a “cyber offensive mission.”
While Rubio missed the official vote for CISA, because of the previously mentioned Denver debate, he is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee where it originated, and he helped it pass there.
Rubio can best be described as a cyberwar hawk, and takes a similarly strident view toward attempts to limit the NSA’s ability to collect data. He has sparred repeatedly with Cruz on the subject during GOP debates, and was one of 32 senators to oppose the USA Freedom Act. “The ‘USA Freedom Act’ weakens US national security by outlawing the very programs our intelligence community and the FBI have used to protect us time and time again,” Rubio said at the time. “A major challenge for the next president will be to fix the significantly weakened intelligence system that the current one is leaving behind.”
Rubio has, however, offered one of the most nuanced understanding of the stakes in Apple-FBI fight of all candidates. At a town hall CNN hosted last month, he lucidly explained the importance of encryption, and how there’s no such thing as a backdoor that law enforcement alone could access. “If you create a backdoor, there is a very reasonable possibility that a criminal gang could figure out what the backdoor is,” Rubio said at the time. “It’s not as simple as people think it is.”
But, oddly, that didn’t lead him to siding with Apple. The following week, when asked again about Apple-FBI, Rubio provided one of the debate’s lasting anti-Apple soundbites: “Their brand is not superior to the national security of the United States of America.”
TL;DR: Outside of a brief flirtation with Apple sympathy, Rubio prioritizes perceived security (read: giving the NSA what it wants) over privacy, and is ready and willing to go on the cyberwar offensive with other nation-states.
As a sitting governor, John Kasich doesn’t have a voting record on cybersecurity, and his time in the House of Representatives ended in 2001, well before many of the current issues at the forefront of this discussion. That said, he does mention cybersecurity in his national security position paper, calling for “new cyber defense resources to better safeguard our security.” There aren’t many specifics, though that’s typical of most policy outlines at this stage of a campaign, regardless of subject.
He has avoided specifics around domestic spying as well. “I think there’s a balance between good intelligence and the need to protect Americans from what can become an aggressive government somewhere down the road,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last summer. “I’m not thrilled with the idea of the phone companies holding onto this [metadata],” he said of the USA Freedom Act in that same interview. “But… I do like the idea that you just can’t go willy-nilly listening in to people, and you’ve got to get to a court.”
Where Kasich gets more specific is encryption, which he has described alternately as a “big problem” and a “major problem.” Kasich has also managed to sow some confusion here, though; during December’s debate in Las Vegas he said, “the people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching. But because their phone was encrypted, because the intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to, it was lost.”
This elides some facts and invents others, in a way that’s not conducive to a productive conversation about encryption, and doesn’t provide much of a viewpoint other than “encryption bad.” At least he did say, in the same answer, that he doesn’t want to shut down any part of the Internet.
TL;DR: As a governor for the past several years, and a private citizen the decade prior, Kasich hasn’t had to directly address many of these issues. As in other areas, he’s defaulting to a centrist position without clearly defined guidelines.
The Two Democrats
Like others who explicitly highlight a cybersecurity policy, Clinton does so under her broader national security goals. Like Trump, she focuses on China, saying that she’ll “encourage China to be a responsible stakeholder—including on cyberspace, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change—and hold it accountable if it does not.”
More broadly, Clinton calls for a coalition of public and private interests working together to improve our cybersecurity. “Cyber attacks have profound consequences for our economy and our national security,” her campaign site states. “Our country will outpace this rapidly changing threat, maintain strong protections against unwarranted government or corporate surveillance, and ensure American companies are the most competitive in the world.”
Again, not many details. Clinton has also avoided commenting on CISA. She did manage to endorse the NSA-reforming USA Freedom Act, albeit with a tweet.
Clinton was no longer Secretary of State by the time Edward Snowden began revealing, in the summer of 2013, the mass spying on American citizens perpetrated by the NSA. She did, though, express disappointment in Snowden’s actions, suggesting that he should have reached out to Congress, not the press.
More recently, she has punted on the question of who is right on in encryption in the Apple-FBI debate, telling a crowd in Michigan earlier this month that she was “feeling like I am in the middle of the worst dilemma ever.” Her position reflects those of many politicians; assuming there must be some middle ground between the privacy afforded by encryption and the perceived national security gained by undermining it. Unfortunately, no such compromise exists.
TL;DR: Clinton has struck a moderate tone on cybersecurity and encryption, asking for a middle ground that ultimately may not exist.
While it’s unfair to paint Sanders as a “single-issue candidate,” it is true that he’s devoted far more energy to outlining his economic policy than to his security and privacy plans. Given Sanders’ reputation, it might be surprising to see that he was one of 32 senators to oppose the USA Freedom Act. He and Rubio make strange national security bedfellows. His reasoning, though, was much different from Rubio’s.
“It does not go as far as I would like it to go,” Sanders told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press last spring. A few months later, he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that, “We are living at a time where technology has far outpaced public policy in terms of protecting the privacy rights of the American people.”
Given that stance, it’s no surprise that Sanders also voted against CISA, and is in fact the only presidential candidate to have voted on that bill at all.
As for Apple and the FBI, Sanders joins his fellow candidates in search for that elusive middle ground.
“I think there has got to be a balance,” Sanders said at a recent town hall event in Las Vegas. “But count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian, who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.”
TL;DR: Bernie’s focus tends to be on the economy, but when he does address cybersecurity, it’s pointedly in defense of civil liberties.
As the race goes on, the candidates will undoubtedly refine their cybersecurity positions. For now, it’s mostly broad outlines, though those can still tell you plenty—especially if you care about how much of your data the government can access, and how easily.
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