The GOP Debate Was Full of Crazy Ideas About Technology
During Tuesday night’s Republican debate, the American public finally got to hear the candidates debate important tech policy.
And it wasn’t pretty.
It was the first Republican debate since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, so naturally the nearly three-hour event focused almost entirely on national security. It also stands to reason that any modern debate on national security would include technology—and the way it’s used by terrorist networks like ISIS—as a focal point.
Unfortunately, the more the candidates on stage discussed technology, the more they revealed just how limited their knowledge of the encryption debate, the intelligence community, Silicon Valley, and, well, the Internet itself really is. We’ve rounded up a few of the more confusing comments of the night in hopes of adding a little bit of clarity to a muddled conversation. Or, at the very least, highlighting just how muddled the conversation has gotten:
1. Donald Trump on whether he’s in favor of closing parts of the Internet: “Yes, sir, I am.”
The Republican frontrunner was recently quoted saying he wanted to talk to Bill Gates about “closing that Internet up” to stop terrorists from convening online. It was a bonkers thing to say, of course, so during the debate Trump got a chance to elaborate. Unfortunately, he didn’t bring us any closer to understanding what the hell he’s talking about.
“I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” Trump said, when asked whether he still supports closing parts of the Internet. “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.”
It’s not exactly clear what Trump means by “closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” and we’re not exactly sure Trump knows what he means, either. Our best guess is that he’s saying it’s possible for the US to shut down Internet access in countries like Syria. That’s problematic, not only because it would shut off millions of innocent people from the Internet, but also because the US simply doesn’t control the Internet in countries like Syria, and neither do US companies.
Another potential possibility is that Trump is using “our Internet” as shorthand to refer to Internet companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube that are often used as recruitment platforms for terrorist groups like ISIS. If that’s the case, then Trump seems to be suggesting that these companies will voluntarily shut down service in these countries. But even in countries where the US has imposed sanctions, like Iran and Sudan, services like “instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging,” are allowed. Typically, when services like Facebook are banned internationally, it’s because local governments shut them down, not the other way around.
2. Carly Fiorina on asking the tech industry to help counterterrorism efforts: “I was asked as a CEO. I complied happily. And they will as well. But they have not been asked.”
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO here referred to a time, shortly after September 11th, when National Security Agency director Michael Hayden called Fiorina to say he needed HP servers to process data the NSA was collecting through a bulk phone and email program called Stellar Wind.
“I stopped a truckload of equipment,” Fiorina said on the debate stage. “I had it turned around. It was escorted by the NSA into headquarters.”
There are still plenty of questions about whether, in repeating this story again and again, Fiorina has inadvertently divulged confidential information. But what confused us most is that Fiorina went on to say that tech leaders do not need to be “forced” to comply with the intelligence community; they just need to be asked. “I was asked as a CEO. I complied happily. And they will as well,” Fiorina said. “But they have not been asked.”
Where to begin! First, there’s the simple fact that while Fiorina was asked to supply hardware to the NSA, tech companies today, like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and more, are regularly asked to supply data, a far more sensitive issue in a post-Edward Snowden America.
But the bigger problem is Fiorina’s assertion that the tech community hasn’t been asked to be part of this work. In reality, government has not only asked technologists to be part of the counterterrorism effort, it’s begged them. Just last week President Obama called on tech companies to work with law enforcement in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey urged companies like Apple to reconsider end-to-end encryption.
But those were just the most recent appeals in the encryption battle that has been building between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. For years, tech companies like Apple and Google have fought tirelessly against government proposals that would require them to build so-called “backdoors” into their encrypted technology. They argue that this would make their technology—and their users vulnerable—and so far at least, they’ve won.
Meanwhile, groups like the Internet Association, which represents the interests of companies like Google and Facebook, have pushed back against legislation that would require them to report any terrorist activity occurring on their platforms to the government. In a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored this proposed bill, the group wrote that such reporting “risks chilling free speech” and “chilling innovation without benefiting our national security.”
All of which is to say, we’ve got a feeling Fiorina will have to do more than say “pretty please” to get the tech industry to change its course.
3. Senator Ted Cruz on the USA Freedom Act, a modified form of the Patriot Act: “[T]he old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent.”
On stage, Cruz defended his support for the USA Freedom Act, a new piece of legislation passed this year that ended the NSA’s bulk data collection program, but his rationale for why he supports it was both right and wrong. Under the Patriot Act, Cruz argued, intelligence agencies only had access to around 30 percent of American phone records, whereas the Freedom Act makes 100 percent of records accessible.
That part is true. But what he neglects to point out is the fact that the Freedom Act does limit the NSA’s spying capabilities substantially. Where the NSA used to be able to indiscriminately collect all of the phone records available to it, now, intelligence officials need a court order to collect phone records, and they must use specific search terms to weed out any irrelevant records. They are also limited to records that are “two hops” away from the intended target.
Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal opponent of the Freedom Act, eagerly contradicted Cruz’s assertions, saying, “So let me just be very clear. There is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before.” Whether you agree with Rubio’s Freedom Act stance or not, on this point at least, he’s mostly right. While the Freedom Act may expand the potential data sources law enforcement can collect, it’s disingenuous to argue that it made getting the data any easier. And well, that’s kind of the point.
There were other missteps throughout the night, like Governor John Kasich’s claim that the San Bernardino shooters’ communications couldn’t be monitored “because their phone was encrypted.” He’s right that their phones contained encryption, but so does mine, and yours, and, in all likelihood, so does Kasich’s, because most smartphones today are encrypted.
The candidates did manage to get a few things right, like Fiorina’s reference to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t monitor social media when conducting visa background checks. Just this week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Politico that there are “certain legal limits” to what the department can do to monitor the social media accounts of visa applicants.
One thing is clear: with the exception of, perhaps, Cruz and Senator Rand Paul, the Republican candidates seem far more interested in restoring the country’s surveillance capabilities than they are in protecting Americans’ privacy. So while this may have been the first tech-centric debate, we highly doubt it will be the last. Let’s hope they do a little more homework in the meantime.