So-called cybersecurity presents itself not as a single political issue, but as a thicket of serious questions involving personal liberties, acts of war and international commerce.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed on the topic in their first debate — most pointedly over the alleged Russian role in high-profile hacking.
“Our institutions are under cyberattack,” began moderator Lester Holt, “and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is: Who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?”
Clinton evoked commercial hacking and the actions of states. She quickly alluded to China and Iran, and then the hacks of the Democratic National Committee. Holt’s phrasing of the question all but invited her to shift to this:
“There’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyberattacks against all kinds of organizations in our country. . . . ”
“I know Donald’s very praiseworthy of Vladimir Putin, but Putin is really playing a very tough, long game here.” She chided Trump for musing that Russia should get and release her missing State Department emails.
Trump played defense.
“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
“As far as the cyber,” he said, “I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not.”
Cybersecurity became a campaign topic in February when President Barack Obama’s Justice Department argued in court to get Apple help officials break into the iPhone of a deceased San Bernadino terrorist.
At the time Trump told a rally: “What I think you ought to do is boycott Apple until such time as they give that security number. How do you like that? I just thought of that!”
In August, Apple CEO Tim Cook raised funds for Clinton.
Whoever becomes president appears destined to face an immediate organizational challenge on the issue.
Two weeks ago, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) reacted negatively to reports that the administration was considering separating the U.S. Cyber Command from the National Security Agency.
Intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden in 2013 prompted the White House to mull such a move earlier. The cluster of issues surrounding it remains unresolved.