Hillary Clinton

Clinton Is Not the Tech Privacy Candidate. Not Your Privacy Anyway.

Podesta leak acknowledges her 'instincts' are to accept law enforcement's claims on encryption access and surveillance.


Hillary Clinton
Bizu Tesfaye/Sipa USA/Newscom

It's incredibly obvious that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are particularly savvy or even remotely articulate about cybersecurity, encryption, and other tech policy issues. It's probably too much to expect people of their ages and backgrounds to stay on top of such an ever-evolving, complicated web of concerns, so what matters here would ultimately be who they choose to help guide federal policies and what sort of principles undergird them (if any).

Amid the dump of hacked emails from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta are bits and pieces of discussion that help indicate her mindset on citizen privacy and the use of encryption to protect data. As Apple was fighting with the FBI earlier in the year over whether the government could force a private tech company to develop tools to defeat its own encryption, California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a strong supporter of tech privacy and Fourth Amendment safeguards from unwarranted surveillance, communicated with the campaign. She was hoping that Clinton would take a stand opposing the FBI's attempts to draft Apple's cooperation via court order and wanted to speak with Clinton if she was thinking of taking the FBI's side. Lofgren supplied a copy of her statement rejecting the FBI's authority and the court's ruling against Apple, saying "It is astonishing that a court would consider it lawful to order that a private American company be commandeered for the creation of a new operating system in response."

Podesta's response was that Clinton and the campaign did not seem to want to get involved:

"I think we are inclined to stay out of this and push it back to Companies and USG to dialogue and resolve. Won't embrace FBI."

When a top politician appears to take an uninvolved stance in a conflict between the executive branch and private citizens or companies, don't mistake it as neutrality. It's deference to authority. As a candidate running to be in charge of the executive branch, "staying out of it" is really approval for the Department of Justice to push the issue to see what would happen.

Indeed, in a prior email communication last November, Podesta openly acknowledged Clinton's attitude of deference to authority here. In a very interesting email exchange, campaign strategist Luke Albee suggests that Clinton maybe learn from conservative Tea Party types who were concerned about mass surveillance and "big brother" government and potentially use those concerns against Trump. Albee wrote:

Trump (and others?) have called for registering Muslims. He has called for a federal domestic police force that will be focussed [sic] on arresting and deporting 11 million people. Other candidates are talking about separating immigrants by religion.

All of this is about building up and feeding the BIG BROTHER beast.

The Tea Party was born bc of the perception of government encroachment in peoples [sic] lives — and it really has always been the Rand Paul mantra: government wants to control your health care decisions. Government wants [to] register all your guns, which will ultimately lead to gun confiscation. Government wants the ability to murder its own citizens with drones (remember the Rand Paul filibuster on that one?). The Snowden stuff confirmed what many felt. . .the government was collecting vast troves of information on everyone.

At a certain point, I think HRC might bring together all the different strands (mostly Trumps) of expanding federal Big Brother government — and talk about how its [sic] possible to be safe without creating some kind of large and cumbersome and intrusive police state.

What a remarkable email within the Clinton campaign. Podesta's response:

Interesting. Her instincts are to buy some of the law enforcement arguments on crypto and Snowden type issues. So may be tough, but worth looking for an opening.

That's pretty telling, too. Ultimately the path Clinton has chosen to tread is to—as much as possible—not tread a path at all. In February, she was asked to weigh in on the Apple vs. FBI fight and what she would do if she were president at Watermark's Silicon Vally Conference for Women in Santa Clara, California. This was her word salad response:

Well, I've talked to some of the leaders in technology, some of the executives of these companies, and I think that's the way to start, a real conversation, where you say, look, here's our problem. If you were sitting in my seat, if all of a sudden some president said, okay, Mr. or Ms. X, we want you to be the head of the counter-terrorism or the new cyber warfare something that takes advantage of your expertise. So you're sitting in these meetings that the president and I and others have sat in and we can see the sequencing where we know people are in contact and where we have both human intelligence and some technology enabled intelligence and we know there is something going to happen and we're trying to figure out how to get through the door that has been locked.

So I think the conversation, rather than you don't understand privacy, and you don't understand security ought to be, okay, let's figure out how we're going to do this. So I don't have answer. I would be the first to say I don't have the answer. I think there are really strong, legitimate arguments on both sides. And what I would like to see is more of the kind of brainstorming that I've had the good fortune to do.

Well, at least she acknowledges she doesn't have the answer to the problem. That's actually a positive. But the larger concern is that her inclination to defer to authority here will lead to real-world outcomes where law enforcement under the executive branch pushes for whatever authority they can grab to collect information unless they're stopped by judges or lawmakers. There's not real ethical foundation here other than a vague stab at a "balance" that doesn't want to admit that there's an actual trade-off where security is subservient to privacy or vice-versa.