Modern field guide to security and privacy

400-pound hacker and the DNC breach: Cybersecurity gets debate spotlight

At the first presidential debate Monday, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton blamed Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee, while Donald Trump refused to point the finger at Moscow. 

Mike Segar/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump agreed cybersecurity will be a major issue for the next president during Monday's debate.

When the issue of cybersecurity came up at the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump disagreed about the Democratic National Committee hack but found themselves more in line on digital threats than most other topics.

In a reference to the DNC hacks, which many experts have attributed to the Russian government, Mrs. Clinton said, "There’s no doubt that Russia has used cyberattacks." She added Russian President Vladimir Putin "is playing a tough, long game here."

"Cyberwarfare is one of the big challenges facing the next president," Clinton said. "We are not going to sit idly by and let state actors go after our private information and government information."

Mr. Trump wasn't as convinced about Moscow's role in the DNC breach, despite a number of digital clues that seem to show Russian involvement. "She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia. Maybe it was. It could also be China, it could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

The cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike first pinned the DNC hack on the Russian government. Hackers struck during business hours for the Russian government, researchers said, and language experts who have pored over the malicious software code said the writers who designed the malware were native Russian speakers, points that could give more weight to CrowdStrike's claim. 

Top US officials have suggested Russian hackers are meddling in the US electoral process. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned the Kremlin not to interfere with Western "democratic processes" earlier this month, and said the US "will not ignore" attempts to undermine American security.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has also said American spies are engaged in "a version of war" with Russians, but stopped short of attributing the DNC hack. 

Trump went on to say "we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare." He said the Islamic State group is "beating us" online, and said his 10-year-old son is "unbelievable" with computers.

That comment about his son certainly caught the attention of many Trump critics watching, such as New Yorker writer James Surowiecki.

Of course, experts watching and commenting on social media were grading every answer from each candidate.

Trump also suggested the US government is not leading the world when it comes to cybersecurity. That point caught the attention of Rob Graham, chief security officer of Errata Security, who disagreed with the Republican candidate.

Others poked fun at Trump's idea that "400 pound" hackers might be behind the DNC hack.

For some in the security community, the details mattered less than that cybersecurity was discussed at all. The issue was mentioned only briefly in President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address.

"In just a few years, we've seen cybersecurity go from a function of the IT back office, to the nation’s Oval Office," said Steve Grobman, chief technology officer at Intel Security.

"While events have tended to drive government into action, more and more top leaders understand the cyber battlefield is as critical as land, sea, air, and space," said Mr. Grobman. "The prominence of cybersecurity in last night’s debate is tremendous progress, with the promise of further progress to come in the coming months and years."

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