This week the topic of cybersecurity made its first-ever appearance at a presidential debate.
This was thanks to moderator Lester Holt, who asked candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump how to fight cyberattacks. Both were heavy on emphasizing the importance of "the cyber," were scant on policy details and, worryingly, omitted critical cybersecurity issues (like ransomware and breaches).
Except cybersecurity doesn't begin and end with cyberwarfare and Russian hackers. It is a catastrophic mistake to see urgent issues like ransomware and breaches as separate from cybersecurity, because they are all part of the same thing. And, thus, the introduction of cyber to presidential debate territory (about ten years too late, if you ask me) took a left turn into bizarro-land and face-planted center stage.
"We want to start with a 21st-century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions are under cyberattack, and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is: Who's behind it? And how do we fight it?" Holt asked.
For her part, Clinton went straight to cyberwar. She opened her response by saying that "cyberwarfare will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next president."
"We need to make it very clear -- whether it's Russia, China, Iran or anybody else -- the United States has much greater capacity." Suggesting that hacking back or escalation is on the table, she framed the issue as fighting "state actors" who "go after our information, our private-sector information or our public-sector information." She explained, "And we're going to have to make it clear that we don't want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don't want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country."
Concentrate only on this, and I promise things will get worse. Because what we desperately need protecting from right now is Yahoo, and companies like them, whose negligent enterprise security facilitates large-scale attacks. And just this week, Europol issued a report saying that ransomware is now the largest online cybercrime threat, period. There's more, like getting the cybersecurity of government orgs and voting into this century, but let's not worry about putting on pants before we run out the door to fight with our aggro neighbors.
Trump inflicted his usual amount of abuse on the English language, taking us on another outside-voice-narrated trip to the land of free association. "So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare. It is -- it is a huge problem." He added, "I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable." Mostly he said we don't cyber so good, and fixing it probably isn't possible. This came out as, "The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable."
He's speaking from firsthand experience -- having just experienced a website leak that included personal information. Trump's website, DonaldJTrump.com, failed to secure sensitive files up until last week. Security researcher Chris Vickery found that Trump's site had misconfigured settings on its Amazon cloud account. This allowed anyone to gain access to and download files on the site (including résumés) simply by guessing file names and typing the URL. In frustration at being ignored at every turn by Trump's people, Vickery asked DataBreaches.net to help him contact the campaign. Ultimately, Trump's campaign remained mute about the security fail; the issue was eventually fixed, silently, without notification or acknowledgement of any kind.
So that's all we got from this long-overdue mention of "the cyber" (as in security) in this little slice of debate history.
Of course, the debate was already making history with Hillary Clinton as the first woman in a presidential debate, and the first candidate to call out his or her opponent for being racist. After slamming Trump for his "whole racist birther lie," Clinton outright stated, "He has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."
But I digress ... All anyone will really remember is what Trump said when Hillary asserted that Russia is behind a spate of recent hacks against the United States -- specifically, the recent DNC hack-spectacular, which became a public-exposure embarrassment of the highest order.
Taking Hillary's bait, Trump went on the defensive for Russia and suggested it could be anyone. "I don't think that anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC," he said. "It could also be China or it could also be lots of other people -- it also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."
Well, if there's one thing consistent about Trump, it's that he loves to hate on fat people. (Methinks the lady doth protest too much.) Yet this wasn't the first time Mr. Big pointed the finger away from Russia and took a poke at big beautiful hackers who happen to like working from bed.
Trump engaged in a little hacker fat-shaming in July when he spoke to an audience in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and mentioned the DNC hacks. "Probably it was China or somebody else. Might be a 400-pound person sitting in bed, OK?" He added, "Might be ... some of the greatest hackers of all time."
Might be, indeed. That was the same day Trump had called for Russia to hack the private email server Clinton used while she was secretary of state. In the morning, at a campaign event before boarding a plane in Florida, he said, "Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 33,000 emails that are missing -- I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
As long as none of you are fatties, of course.
Images: AP Photo/John Locher (Trump); AP Photo/Julio Cortez (Clinton)