Modern field guide to security and privacy

Where the candidates stand on cybersecurity

From encryption to Chinese hackers, a handy guide to Internet politics in the 2016 presidential election.


As presidential candidates take the stage Thursday for an important Republican debate – the last before the Iowa caucuses – all of them will likely be prepared for questions on digital security and privacy.

That’s a big change. In the early days of their campaigns, most presidential candidates were mum on anything related to cybersecurity, online surveillance, or data privacy. Criticizing Hillary Clinton over “e-mailgate” was the closest most came to those topics.

But the conversation shifted after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., which raised national policy questions about whether the government should be able to access encrypted communications on social media sites and smartphone apps to surveil militants – and the role tech companies should play in stripping extremist content from their platforms. Also, President Obama inked a landmark deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to rein in that country’s hackers, returning attention to China’s suspected role of orchestrating a massive data breach on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) over the summer.

So while at first Republican contender Jeb Bush stood out for trumpeting his detailed five-point cybersecurity plan, all the candidates have since found themselves in the cybersecurity and privacy hotseat. Privacy, for example, was brought up six times in the most recent Democratic debate alone.

These are relatively new issues for the campaign trail. After all, in the debates before the 2012 presidential election, Edward Snowden had not yet leaked the classified documents that sparked a global debate over National Security Agency surveillance. The Islamic State – let alone its influential social media reach and use of secure communications platforms – was a relative unknown. And the massive OPM and Sony Pictures breaches that government officials dubbed “wake-up calls” for cybersecurity were still, of course, years away.

What’s more, these issues are complicated. 

That’s why Passcode compiled a few handy charts to show you where the presidential candidates who have been on the main debate stage stand on security, privacy and Internet issues.

Unlikely Alliances

Security and privacy politics spawn strange bedfellows. Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Hillary Clinton were both in favor of a bill to curtail the National Security Agency’s mass collection of phone records. Liberal Bernie Sanders joined with libertarian Rand Paul to oppose the USA Freedom Act as the way to stop the spy agency’s bulk collection. Yet still other Republicans – Bush, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio – wanted to keep the NSA program intact.

While many issues don’t clearly cut across party lines, it’s possible to extrapolate from our research some general trends among Republicans and Democrats.

On the whole, GOP presidential candidates have more strongly advocated for the US to launch digital attacks against those who would attack them online. Also, while Democratic candidates supported the FCC’s new net neutrality rules, the majority of Republicans came out against the ruling.

This cycle, some issues may still be so new that candidates haven’t yet taken positions. While Republicans Bush and John Kasich have advocated government access to encrypted communications to aid in the pursuit of terrorists and criminals, many candidates have yet to explicitly say where they stand.

Candidates have also thus far stayed quiet on safe harbor agreements, even as negotiations on a key transatlantic data-transfer agreement continue. And only Bush and Huckabee have weighed in saying the United States should retain oversight over the Internet’s domain name overseer ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Personal Cybersecurity

Despite candidates’ public stances on digital security and privacy issues, their pro-cybersecurity policy goals don’t appear to correlate to how they actually treat data their campaigns collect from voters.

The Online Trust Alliance published a report in September that graded presidential campaigns on how well they protected voter and donor information. The majority of campaigns flunked the OTA’s standards for privacy and security policies surrounding voter data. Only three candidates who have made it to the main debate stage also made the group’s honor roll.

And of course, questions about personal cybersecurity practices proved a vulnerability this cycle for one candidate in particular: Hillary Clinton, who was open to attacks from rivals on both sides for using her own personal e-mail account and a private server while she was secretary of State.

Regardless of your opinions on Clinton’s e-mails, one thing is clear: The controversy over Clinton’s own attention to cybersecurity and whether hackers could access her e-mails proved candidates’ cybersecurity record can actually affect their political campaigns. And this level of national scrutiny could ultimately prove an incentive for candidates to take greater care with their own online habits – and draw attention to cybersecurity policy issues – this cycle and beyond.

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