Stupidity and lies: Presidential candidates flunk the tech test

From dismantling the Internet to banning encryption to reinstating NSA phone surveillance, politicians vie to outdo each other with bad policy suggestions

Stupidity and lies: Presidential candidates flunk the tech test
Alan Cleaver (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

When it comes to political theater these days, there's no lack of boneheaded ideas backed by deliberately misleading statements (aka lying) and topped with a heaping helping of fearmongering.

Presidential candidates at this week's debate were falling over each other in their rush to embrace bad policies, from dismantling the Internet to banning encryption and restarting NSA phone surveillance (not that it's needed). 

Internet ignorance

Let's start with Donald Trump, who gave social media a field day with his childlike premise that the Internet can be shut off like a light switch. "ISIS is recruiting through the Internet. ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet, and it was our idea," Trump said. "I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet."

Rand Paul attempted to rain on his parade by pointing out, "if you're going to close the Internet -- that's like something they do in North Korea, something like they do in China -- but it also goes against the Constitution. It goes against the First Amendment."

But Trump waved such concerns away: "Somebody will say, 'Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.' These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people."

His disregard for the First Amendment is seemingly matched only by Hillary Clinton -- a major advocate, as Secretary of State, of programs that expanded Internet access to get around censorship in repressive countries like China. "We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS," Clinton said in a speech at an annual gathering at the Brookings Institution. "[But] you're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera."

Later in the Republican debate, Trump attempted to clarify his statement about the Internet: "I'm not talking about closing the Internet, I'm talking about closing parts of the Internet where ISIS is."

Trump was understandably short on specifics for accomplishing this, but niggling details won't get in the way; Trump knows where to find answers: "We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what's happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way." (Sorry Bill, your work to eradicate malaria will have to wait.)

Trump, who "routinely claims everyone in charge of the U.S. is stupid, believes that as president, he could just call up Bill Gates to help him shut off the Internet," said The Verge. Too bad the global Internet's backbone doesn't run through Redmond

Someone will have to explain to The Donald that while yes, the Defense Department played a key role in developing the Internet, the American government doesn't actually run the show. People living abroad have their Internet services delivered by servers on foreign soil, not under American control.

ISIS already controls the Internet infrastructure in its territory, and to take out those servers would possibly involve ground troops. While they're at it, they'd also have to take down the cell towers -- and jam those "pesky satellites orbiting the planet and beaming down information." 

Even if the Internet in Iraq and Syria could be cut off, the move would overwhelmingly affect people unassociated with ISIS. "It would be a human rights catastrophe," says Thomas Ristenpart, a computer science professor at Cornell. For one, refugees fleeing ISIS rely on smartphones to find information.

Another hitch in the plan: Shutting down the Internet in ISIS-controlled areas would eliminate intelligence gathering from phone calls, emails, and other electronic communication, "rendering the NSA effectively blind and deaf." 

Encryption fabrications

Recent terrorism attacks have also unleashed a renewed attack on encryption. At the presidential debate, John Kasich insisted the San Bernardino shooters used encrypted messaging -- even though the statement has no basis in reality. "Intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to," he moaned. "We have to solve the encryption problem." True, their phone and social media communications were not being monitored, but encryption was not the reason. The government was not monitoring them because they were not on any terrorist watchlists.

In fact, FBI Director James Comey said at a media event in New York, "We have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom."

Carly Fiorina reminded people, once again, about her technology chops as a former CEO of HP. We must have encryption backdoors, she said, "to give our investigators the information they need. I'd ask the private sector's help in that.... I know this community. I know this industry. I know these people. I will engage them.... They have not been asked."

That will come as news to President Obama and the FBI, which over the last year have asked all the major tech companies -- Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others -- to help them spy on terrorists. But technology leaders, in particular Apple CEO Tim Cook, have spoken out strongly against the idea of backdoors, as have security and encryption experts, who in a joint statement called the FBI's attempts to obtain backdoors "mandating insecurity." The government cannot be given backdoors without creating serious risk that criminals will gain the same access.

Regardless, in Congress committees are preparing encryption hearings. John McCain promises "we're going to have legislation;" Dianne Feinstein calls it a "big problem" if tech firms "create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way;" and Richard Burr is seeking ways to "pierce" encryption for investigative purposes.

Social media mendacity

Monitoring social media is another subject where politicians at the debate piled on to conveniently ignore facts. Fiorina (with a chorus from Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee) claimed, "We now learn that DHS says, 'No, we can't check [the San Bernardino terrorists'] social media.' For heaven's sake, every parent in America is checking social media and every employer is as well. The government can't do it?"

Cruz blustered, "It's not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these attacks. It is political correctness. We didn't monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate."

Huckabee chimed in, "My gosh, we were told we couldn't [monitor their Facebook posts] because it might invade somebody's privacy."

In fact, there is no State Department policy prohibiting social media checks by consular officers, who interview prospective visa recipients and make the final call on whether they qualify for a visa, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "However, the value of these social media searches is limited, since terrorist sympathizers can conceal their identities online or use privacy settings to hide their posts."

NSA subterfuge

Not to be outdone in ignoring inconvenient truths, Marco Rubio rushed to the defense of the NSA, saying it has been weakened by the USA Freedom Act and must be re-empowered to collect phone data. "If a regular law enforcement agency wants your phone records, all they have to do is issue a subpoena.... But now the intelligence agency is not able to quickly gather records and look at them to see who these terrorists are calling."

Not so -- the NSA can still acquire phone records, and in an emergency can even do so immediately without a court order.

But why let facts about any of these issues stand in the way of a healthy dose of fearmongering? Over the course of the debate, Chris Christie wrung his hands that "everywhere in America is a target for these terrorists." Trump informed viewers that "we're just going to go weaker, weaker, and just disintegrate." Rubio claimed that "the President has left us unsafe." And Fiorina empathized, "Like all of you, I'm angry."

If Americans weren't already feeling angry and unsafe before they watched Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate, they surely would have been feeling furious and frightened by the end, The Washington Post wrote in an editorial.

No argument there.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.