Hillary on China hack: What is cybersecurity's role in 2016 elections?

At a campaign event Saturday, Hillary Clinton used strong language in taking a stand on cybersecurity and foreign policy. Other candidates are also incorporating the issue into their campaigns. 

Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to supporters at an organizing event at a private residence, Saturday, July 4, 2015, in Glen, N.H. While there, the former secretary of state issued a strong statement against China and its alleged involvement in a recent US government data breach.

When discussing China’s alleged hacking of US computers, Hillary Clinton minced no words.

At a campaign event in New Hampshire Saturday, the Democratic presidential hopeful said – in language far stronger than that typically used by President Barack Obama’s administration – that China was stealing US commercial secrets and government information, Reuters reported.

Ms. Clinton’s statement marks the growing political significance of cybersecurity, an issue that some experts say could play an important, though not yet central, role in campaign discourse leading up to the 2016 elections.

China is “trying to hack into everything that doesn’t move in America,” Clinton said, according to CNN. “Stealing commercial secrets, blueprints from defense contractors, stealing huge amounts of government information. All looking for an advantage.”

In June, an infiltration of the US Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) computer networks compromised 4.2 million former and current federal workers’ personal information. The breach, which could cost the US government $19 billion in efforts to inform victims of the hack and supply them with credit monitoring services, is suspected to have come from China, The Christian Science Monitor's Malena Carollo wrote. 

Beijing, via the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, has denied involvement in the attack and called US accusations “not responsible and counterproductive,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Still, Clinton – who herself has faced accusations of failing to secure her personal emails from potential security breaches – is not alone in attempting to take a stand on cybersecurity and online privacy.

A number of presidential candidates have incorporated the issue into their campaigns, likely in a bid to shore up their images as leaders who understand and can face 21st-century threats, Eric Chabrow wrote on his blog for GovInfoSecurity, a risk management and information security news site.

Republican candidate Rand Paul, for instance, made his presence felt in the privacy debate in late May, when he stood against fellow Kentucky senator and majority leader Mitch McConnell in opposing the extension of a section of the Patriot Act that justified the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk data collection program.

Former Florida governor and Republican hopeful Jeb Bush tried to make “transparency” a byword for his campaign by releasing emails from his time in office in the Sunshine State. However, privacy advocates criticized the effort after it became known that Mr. Bush’s office had failed to first redact identifying information – including names, addresses, and social security numbers – from the emails sent to him.

Prior to launching his bid for the Republican nomination, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed off on a new cybersecurity communications and integration cell, tasked to conduct cyber threat analysis and determine best cybersecurity practices for his home state, NJ.com reported.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, like Clinton, addressed the issue from the perspective of the OPM hacks, telling Bloomberg that defending against cyberattacks should be a “central part of any homeland security strategy.”

“You have to have a consolidated command that has the accountability, the responsibility, for protecting the security of all government systems and databases,” Ms. Fiorina told the news outlet. “You can’t have this piece-mealed throughout government.”

And Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, has supported a congressional bill that he said could protect US networks against just such cyberattacks as the OPM breach.

“This security breach might be the most significant yet to take place in our country, but it won’t be the last,” Mr. O’Malley wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. “It signals the urgent need to advance a new agenda to improve our nation’s cybersecurity.”

The growing chorus of voices in and around the issue show that cybersecurity is on its way to becoming a critical part of political discourse. But, GovInfoSecurity’s Mr. Chabrow wrote, don't expect it to become a central issue yet: For the 2016 elections, at least, economic concerns will continue to dominate presidential debates. 

As innovation blogger Dominic Basulto put it for the Washington Post: “Cybersecurity is like global terrorism before 2001 – it’s something that percolates in the background until something tragic happens that moves the issue front and center.”

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