Last night, nine GOP presidential candidates debated electronic surveillance and terrorism on a stage attached to a Las Vegas casino. In doing so, they displayed a stunning ignorance about much of the Internet.

Because national security in 2015 is a massively tech-centric issue, that means the candidates made a lot of statements about encryption, surveillance, and Internet security. Many of those statements were dead wrong.

Thanks to a bogus, 8chan-helmed threat that shuttered LA’s public schools, each candidate was in a hurry to out-tough one another. They flexed their bleeding-edge technological prowess using the word “cyber,” a lot of ISIS boogeymen, and astonishingly few facts.

Let’s get it over with, shall we?

Donald Trump

While all the other candidates waited backstage, Donald Trump arrived by motorcade just moments before the debate began with a Secret Service detail in tow (code name: TWiTCH Plays Prez).

Trump doubled down on his statement that the U.S. should shut down the Internet, offering a light clarification that he would shut down “parts” of the Internet.

“I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” he said.

Perhaps he means shutting down Twitter, which is a hotbed of fascism and metastasized hatred. But he’d have to also take down Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and whatever platform ISIS would hop to next.

Perhaps he meant disrupting ISPs in regions the U.S. deems hostile, which involves technical capabilities we may not have and jurisdiction that doesn’t exist. Not to mention that electronic warfare has collateral damage the same way regular warfare does — mass interruptions of the Internet amounts to a suspension of a human right.

Pick whichever one you want. Like Trump’s own ambitions, both options are dumb, criminal, and impossible.

John Kasich

The Ohio governor karate-chopped his way through a fiery but misguided takedown of encryption.

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


I’ll leave that blank until the Kasich campaign can back up his claim. Until then, the evidence shows that they mostly communicated on unencrypted networks like Facebook. Kasich didn’t outline any plans for monitoring public, unencrypted platforms that attackers use over and over and over and over.

Kasich saying “encryption problem” suggests that the attackers were using some made-up extra layer of protection from surveillance.

But pretty much every phone, tablet and computer sold in the U.S. uses encryption. Otherwise, thieves and criminals and the rest would be able to intercept cell tower and Wi-Fi connections. Without strong encryption, our entire lives would be vulnerable — photos, banking information, health data, etc. How is this a “problem”?

I get it, Governor Kasich. Phone technology is hard to grasp, and the phones themselves are hard to grasp when your fingers are glued together.

Chris Christie

The New Jersey governor (and Bruce Springsteen’s least favorite fan) urged that the NSA resume mass metadata collection in light of the 8chan-related hoax that closed the LA Unified School District.

One more time for emphasis: The FBI itself has admitted that it cracked no major cases with Patriot Act snooping powersI assume “dumb hoaxes from the armpit of the Internet” fall under that umbrella, Governor.

Chris Christie also floated a great solution to the Office of Personnel Management hack that compromised the sensitive data of more than 21 million Americans.

Despite the fact that the largest government hack in U.S. history was never officially attributed to China, Christie suggested that we respond to China with an identical hack. In other words, declare cyberwar to keep us safe from more cyberattacks.

This is a slightly more nuanced take than at the last debate, when Chris Christie said he’d fly Air Force One over the South China Sea and promised cyberwarfare “like they have never seen before.”

(Are Christie’s Michael Bay delusions more or less embarrassing than the prefix “cyber”?)

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina trotted out a possibly classified story about rerouting a truck full of HP servers from a Tennessee highway to Maryland’s Fort Meade. The NSA needed lots of computing power very quickly, and Fiorina was happy to oblige. At least some of those servers ended up crunching data for the highly controversial domestic spying program known as Stellar Wind.

The moral of Fiorina’s story was that the government does not (or cannot, thanks to encryption) rely on the tech sector as much as it should. “We need the private sector’s help because government is not innovating,” Fiorina said. “Technology is running ahead by leaps and bound. The private sector will help, just as I helped after 9/11.”

But according to Fiorina’s framing of these events, tech sector companies are happy to offer their services. The government is just too bogged down or clueless to ask. In fact, this hasn’t been the case for quite some time. Companies like Apple and Google have spent years and untold millions fighting government requests for backdoors into their products. So far, it has mostly worked out.

But Carly Fiorina knows that the tech sector needs to freely volunteer their data to help destroy ISIS. Otherwise, she’ll be forced to defeat ISIS the good ol’ fashioned way: by merging it with Compaq.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz may have had a case of loose lips, as well.

In a rather heated segment with Marco Rubio about the USA Freedom Act, Rubio claimed that a system without bulk collection of phone metadata means that the intelligence community now lacks tools to prevent terrorist attacks. That prompted Cruz to speak — perhaps before thinking.

“What he knows is that the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that’s the case,” said Cruz, who supported the bipartisan bill that changed the program, known as the USA Freedom Act, that became law earlier this year.

Rubio, who serves on the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee, seemed to bristle.

“Let me be very careful when answering this, because I don’t think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information,” he said.

Almost immediately after, Becca Glover Watkins, the communications director for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard M. Burr, tweeted:

Tuesday’s debate was, mercifully, the last of 2015. Hopefully the candidates will take some time over the holidays to learn a thing or ten.


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