What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday when Donald Trump was asked during a televised interview how he would deal with ISIS’s spread online he responded with a fairly incoherent answer that amounted to “the cyber is so big.” Today, during a much publicized speech on national security in Philadelphia, he said one of his first directives as president would be to “conduct a thorough review of all United States cyber defenses and identify all vulnerabilities.”
Sounds like someone’s been studying…or at least, whoever wrote Trump’s speech has been. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request about who wrote today’s remarks.)
Throughout this election cycle, the Republican nominee has rarely discussed issues related to technology and cyber security. And when he has, the things he’s said have been newsworthy if only for their comedic value. Yesterday, it was his circuitous and confusing dodge about defeating ISIS online.
Worth a read. Donald Trump somehow segues from “cyber” to ISIS propaganda to his poll numbers: pic.twitter.com/9ewF54ee37
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) September 6, 2016
Before that, it was his debate-night assertion that Bill Gates would help him close up parts of the Internet.
And boy did the Twitterati laugh, because Trump putting a “the” in front of “cyber” is kind of like my mom asking if we can “Netflick” the final season of The Good Wife. And how would Bill Gates shut off the internet anyway? How absurd. Ha HA!
Except for one thing: Trump’s ignorance about cyber threats has never been funny. It’s been scary. Trump’s lousy grammar and off the cuff remarks have been distractions from the real issue: That the man who actually could be president has expressed little to no understanding of cybersecurity or the online frontier in the war on terror.
Yesterday, when he was asked to talk policy, Trump slipped seamlessly into highlighting his own rising poll numbers. Whether he intended to or not, that pivot had the effect of comparing his supporters to ISIS recruits, suggesting that the same psychology that leads them to be energized about polls in his favor is what leads ISIS recruits to be radicalize. Wait, what?
Never mind the fact that ISIS’s social media recruiting tactics are a separate issue altogether from the cybersecurity threats the country faces from other nations and lone hackers. Russian hackers have cracked the Democratic National Committee’s databases. Chinese hackers infiltrated the US Office of Personnel Management. North Korean hackers nearly toppled Sony over the release of a Seth Rogen movie. So yeah, “the cyber” is big, so big that the next president will need to come to the White House with at least a slight understanding of what to do about it.
Which is why it’s mildly comforting that today, Trump devoted a significant portion of his national security speech to talking about addressing these issues. In addition to investing heavily in the military, Trump said he would ask the joint chiefs of staff and “all relevant federal departments” to submit a plan that would address vulnerabilities in the country’s power grid, communications, and infrastructure.” That’s a good start.
“At the same time we will invest heavily in offensive cyber capabilities to disrupt our enemies including terrorists who rely heavily on Internet communications,” Trump said, adding that these investments would “help create the jobs and technologies of tomorrow.”
After a year and a half of skirting questions about technology altogether, Trump sounded a lot like, well, Hillary Clinton. Clinton has also called for a commission on national security and privacy, and has spoken repeatedly about the need to refuse ISIS territory on land and in cyberspace.
“We need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary,” Clinton said back in November. “We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector and work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that would both keep us safe and protect our privacy.”
The difference, of course, is that Clinton has been talking about these issues with frequency and facility. Trump, on the other hand, has stumbled tongue-tied toward a coherent policy. Now that he’s arrived at one–however devoid of detail it may be–it’s hard to lavish on the credit for his ability to read from a TelePrompter. Still, today’s remarks indicate he’s starting to take “the cyber” seriously.