Tech policy in campaign 2016: Where do candidates stand on encryption?

Analysis: David Gewirtz decodes each of the presidential candidates' public statements to determine who's for, against or clueless about encryption.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

As an active member of our digital-first society, there is almost nothing more demoralizing than trying to track down coherent technology policies from our top ten candidates for the 2016 presidential race.

Rather than trying to encapsulate the incoherent technology policy positions for all the candidates, I decided to take one hot-button topic, encryption, and see if I could decode their positions. I did that by looking for statements they've given on the campaign trail or in debates that might shed some light on how they might govern if elected.

Before I proceed, let's discuss the ground rules for this article. I'm starting with the Democratic candidates simply because there are only three of them, followed by the GOP candidates, in rough order of their polling numbers.

I'll also tell you that I don't have any candidate preference (although as a political commentator, I can't help but be wistful about the amount of good material a Trump presidency would generate and I would actually pay real money to watch debates between The Donald and Bernie Sanders).

That said, I do have a strong leaning towards encryption -- not just because of privacy, but because a strong country requires strong encryption. You can read my articles, Smartphone encryption ban? It's a boon for criminals and terrorists, and, Encryption is not the enemy: A 21st century response to terror to get a good feel for my position.

And with that, let's start with the Democrats.

Hillary Clinton (Democrat)

Hillary Clinton has shown a historical disdain for issues of technology security, particularly when it comes to email and national security. I have already gone on record stating that her actions regarding email may well be her undoing -- but only time will tell.

In any case, discussing encryption at the December 19 debate, she said:

Maybe the back door isn't the right door, and I understand what Apple and others are saying about that. I just think there's got to be a way, and I would hope that our tech companies would work with government to figure that out.

This "figure it out" theme will prove to be a theme among many candidates on both side of the center. Let's be clear. There is nothing to figure out. Encryption is meant to protect data transmission. Privacy is a constitutional right. There many other methods (including cracking encryption) that do not require back doors to be built into encryption algorithms.

When it comes to protecting our encryption rights, Secretary Clinton is probably not on the side of right.

Bernie Sanders (Democrat)

Bernie Sanders, the only socialist candidate we have, has a distinctly anti-corporation stance. He's mellowed somewhat since his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He's no longer talking about government takeovers of corporations (and kicking out the owners without compensation).

Even so, while he doesn't appear to have come out with a direct policy about encryption, here's what he said at the Democratic debate on January 17:

I voted against the USA Patriot Act for many of the reasons that Governor O'Malley mentioned. But it is not only the government that we have to worry about, it is private corporations. You would all be amazed, or maybe not, about the amount of information private companies and the government has in terms of the websites that you access, the products that you buy, where you are this very moment.

It's probably fair to say that Sanders might support smartphone encryption, but it would be nice to see that spelled out clearly.

Martin O'Malley (Democrat)

The only reason Martin O'Malley can possibly still be in the race is that he's counting on Hillary getting indicted or worse. Otherwise, O'Malley has no unique policy ideas, nothing going for him (except that The Wire was about the city he was mayor of), and absolutely no polling support (Lindsay Graham's numbers looked good next to O'Malley's).

For those who haven't seen it, The Wire was a scathing indictment of corruption in Baltimore, and Mr. O'Malley was the city's mayor during the period chronicled by the well-respected show. So, yeah, there's probably a reason O'Malley isn't getting any support to bring Baltimore-style governance to the national stage.

Even so, the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore distinguished himself by demonstrating a complete lack of understanding about what the term "back door" in encryption means:

I believe whether it's a back door or a front door that the American principle of law should still hold that our federal government should have to get a warrant, whether they want to come through the back door or your front door.

That said, you might be able to infer from his comments about requiring a warrant that he might not support eliminating the protections of encryption. Once again though, no one knows -- and in O'Malley's case in particular, absolutely no one cares.

Donald Trump (Republican)

All this brings us to The Donald, master of the "oh-no, he'd didn't just say that" statement. While Trump hasn't demonstrated deep technological prowess, you have to respect the guy for his Twitter chops, single-handedly confounding the Republican establishment by spending almost no money and driving his following forward 140 characters at a time.

Trump is clearly in the "we have to figure this thing out" camp, stating:

We have kids who are watching the Internet and they want to be masterminds. We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people.

On another occasion, in the December 15 GOP debate, Trump was asked about closing the Internet in response to terrorist activities. He replied, "Don't want to let people who want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet."

We can generally assume that since he used the term "our Internet," he'd be opposed to releasing control of the DNS root files to a non-American agency. Of course, the idea that Trump knows what a DNS root file is (or DNS itself, for that matter) is silly. As for encryption, it's highly unlikely that Trump has given it much thought at all, but if he's elected and the time comes, he'll probably shoot from the hip and it's anyone's guess who'll be hit.

Ted Cruz (Republican)

Way back in 2011, I once found myself agreeing with didn't-make-it-past-the-first-vote presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and thought I'd entered Bizarro World. Oddly enough, I now find myself agreeing with Ted Cruz (on one issue, anyway), and find myself back on the bizarro side.

In a November 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post, Cruz said:

We don't leave our constitutional rights behind when we go online. The same commitment to the principles of liberty that made the United States the greatest economic superpower that the world has ever seen must prevail in the virtual world as well.

Whether or not that means he'd try to weaken encryption goes on the "anyone's guess" list. But if you ever wanted the chance to agree with Cruz on something, there you go.

Marco Rubio (Republican)

Marco Rubio is in an odd position. He was elected to the Senate on a Tea Party platform, defeating the then-Republican, then-governor of Florida, Charlie Crist. It wasn't until the 2016 GOP race became dominated by the front runners who make the real Republican establishment's heads explode (i.e., Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) that Rubio somehow morphed from ultra-conservative to possible-establishment candidate.

This, of course, baffles true establishment candidates like Chris Christie, the ever-pissed-off-because-he's -actually-qualified John Kasich, and, of course, scion of the Bush Dynasty, the ever-plummeting-in-the-polls Jeb! Bush.

But where does Rubio stand on encryption? Right now, based on a year old op-ed he wrote for Fox News, it looks like he's solidly on the "pressure companies to comply" side of the house:

The U.S. government should implore American technology companies to cooperate with authorities so that we can better track terrorist activity and monitor terrorist communications as we face the increasing challenge of homegrown terrorists radicalized by little more than what they see on the Internet.

Chris Christie (Republican)

When it comes to the governor of New Jersey, let's just say you probably wouldn't want to put him in a room alone with Edward Snowden. Christie is solidly on the side of law enforcement, which should mean he's about protecting encryption and privacy as well as individual rights, but in fact means he's a vocal supporter of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, otherwise known as the Patriot Act.

In the December 15 Republican debate, he reinforced this, while supporting increased use of the NSA and other agencies within the intelligence community to fight terrorism:

What we need to do, Wolf, is restore those tools that have been taken away by the president and others, restore those tools to the NSA and to our entire surveillance and law enforcement community.

We need a president who is going to understand what actionable intelligence looks like and act on it. And we need a president and a cabinet who understands that the first and most important priority of the president of the United States is to protect the safety and security of Americans.

He went on to say this about cybersecurity and China, a topic I've written at length about:

So if they want to come in and attack all the personnel records in the federal government, which they've done, and which -- they now have my Social Security number and my fingerprints, as well as maybe some other folks' who are on this stage.

The fact is, they need to be fought back on. And what we need to do is go at the things that they are most sensitive and most embarrassing to them; that they're hiding; get that information and put it out in public. Let the Chinese people start to digest how corrupt the Chinese government is; how they steal from the Chinese people; and how they're enriching oligarchs all throughout China.

Christie has not explicitly come out in support for encryption back doors, but one indication that he might be smart enough to support encryption and understand that you can have your NSA and encryption, too, is that last year he signed into law a bill requiring enhanced encryption for health care records.

Ben Carson (Republican)

Somehow, Ben Carson is hanging in. He made it to the main event stage in the last GOP debate. While it's a bit challenging to parse much of what Carson has to say, we'll, uh, take a stab at it.

After a lot of digging, I haven't been able to find anything at all Carson has said about encryption, although I did read a whole lot about how the pyramids were somehow used for grain storage. That just goes to show you that you can have towering competence in one domain, and, well, "thoughts" in areas where you have absolutely no experience or expertise.

I used the search function on the Ben Carson for President web site to look for the word "encryption". The only result was the phrase "No Results".

So, let's just add encryption to the oddly long list of things Dr. Carson doesn't seem to know anything about. Disclosure: while I haven't decided who I'm going to vote for, I'm probably not pulling the lever on Carson. Just thought you should know.

John Kasich (Republican)

I feel for John Kasich, I really do. If the American public actually nominated and elected presidents based on their resumes and proven ability to do the job, Kasich would be the front runner. The fact that he's not getting any traction seems to be sending him further and further into fits of debate apoplexy.

Yes, somehow the fact that the clowns seem to be leading the pack have turned one of the most qualified candidates into a clown himself. This is 'merica. 'F yeah.

In any case, Kasich isn't getting it right when it comes to encryption. In the December 15 debate, he said:

The people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching, but because their phone was encrypted, it was lost. We have to solve the encryption problem.

The only problem in his statement was that husband-and-wife terrorists Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik didn't use encrypted phone calls to plan their attacks, although they did conduct some private conversations on Facebook.

So, while Kasich doesn't appear to have his facts right, he does seem willing to compromise American's safety by "solving the encryption problem." Governor, encryption is not the problem. Terrorism is.

Jeb! Bush (Republican)

John Ellis Bush (forever now known as "Jeb!") is one of six children of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, and brother of Dubya. Going into this election cycle, that pedigree assumed -- like it's been assumed for Hillary since, forever -- that Jeb!'s "turn" at the Resolute Desk was next.

Sadly (and you can see it in his face), Jeb! just never managed to get any traction and so, despite the fact that he was an amazing pre-game fundraiser, he can't get no respect.Yep, somehow, the son and brother of 41 and 43 has turned into the Rodney Dangerfield of this election cycle.

So, technically, it doesn't really matter what Jeb!'s position is on encryption. That said, he's strongly in favor of nerfing basic protections, as reported in The Intercept (the site formed to capitalize on the Snowden treason). Sigh. In any case, we cite our sources, so here's what Jebby is reported to have said:

If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job - while protecting civil liberties - to make sure that evildoers aren't in our midst,


So there you go. A few candidates are out and out against solid encryption, a few aren't really sure what such a big word means, and one or two have some things they want to hide (I'm kidding, I'm kidding).

But here's the serious part. We can't rely on our politicians to make smart technology policy decisions. It's up to us, We The Internet, to keep a sharp eye on everything they say and do.

See also:

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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