The GOP presidential debate last night focused on foreign policy, which meant lots of talk on how to DESTROY ISIS. It immediately devolved into a sneering Fear Off as each candidate attempted to out-scaremonger frontrunner and Ayn Rand cantaloupe Donald Trump.
Trump blithely confirmed that he would violate the Geneva convention by killing children in the vicinity of the Islamic State, so the hard line to beat was so far to the right it whizzed past the Tea Party and straight into Kim Jong Un-style bellicosity. This led to some absurd and flat-out wrong statements on encryption, technology, and security:
John Kasich took out his slappers and went full-bore against encryption, perhaps in an effort to wrest talk time from the candidates who have eyebrows. “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.”
This is not a statement he can back up with facts, unless Kasich has been granted access to details of the investigation into the shootings that haven’t been made public. Considering he’s the Governor of Ohio, why the hell would that happen?
There is no evidence that the San Bernardino shooters used encryption to communicate. There is evidence that one of the shooters, Tashfeen Malik, openly pledged allegiance to ISIS using unencrypted communications—a Facebook post. Kasich didn’t weigh in on how to solve the problem of the FBI failing to intercept unencrypted messages.
Now, Kasich isn’t incorrect in saying that the shooters’ phones contained encryption. Almost every smartphone does. Implying that the shooters used encryption to cloak their attack plans from officials, however, is a misleading ploy to blame math for a terrorist attack. This is the same self-serving, disingenuous argument lawmakers used after the Paris attacks (where, like in San Bernardino, there is evidence that the terrorists communicated openly on their devices and no evidence they used encrypted communication services).
Chris Christie couldn’t stop bringing up the hoax that closed down the LA school system yesterday as evidence that Obama was making the country unsafe. He even used it to justify restoring metadata collection.
“What we need to do, Wolf, is restore those tools that have been taken away by the president and others, restore those tools to the NSA and to our entire surveillance and law enforcement community,” Christie said in response to a question about the LA school hoax.
Christie’s answer would make much more sense if the NSA program taken away during Obama’s tenure—the phone metadata collection program—had ever stopped a major terrorist threat on the US. Even the FBI admits it did not.
Rubio and Cruz tussled over their opposing votes on the USA Freedom Act. Cruz defended his decision to vote for the USA Freedom Act, which banned the NSA’s metadata collection program, by insisting that it expands the NSA’s overall phone surveillance. He bungled the details.
“The USA Freedom Act expands that so now we have cell phones, now we have internet phones, now we have the phones that terrorists are likely to use and the focus of law enforcement is on targeting the bad guys,” Cruz said.
Cruz is correct in highlighting the “internet phones” thing—the USA Freedom Act allows Skype and other VOIP surveillance. But this statement is bizarre because the NSA’s metadata collection program prominently included cell phones. Cruz then insisted that the USA Freedom Act increased the number of phones the NSA could access:
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.
This is a major mischaracterization of the bill, one that suggests Cruz didn’t understand what he was voting on when he said yes. The new program doesn’t allow the NSA to dragnet by zip code or service provider, so to get 100 percent of phone records, the NSA would have to prove “reasonable suspicion” and get court orders for millions of people.
Rubio corrected Cruz: “So let me just be very clear. There is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before.” Apart from expanding the sources of data collection (like VOIP, which Cruz pointed out) Rubio is right. The USA Freedom Act will not swell the number of phone records the NSA will collect.
Asked how she would deal with North Korea, Fiorina offered up an unconventional approach to strengthening ties with China. First, launch a cyberattack on China. Next, somehow become allies with China as a result of this attack. Finally, unite with China to stand against North Korea.
She did not elaborate on how her negging-based foreign alliance building would work.
Fiorina wasn’t the only candidate with a nonsensical plan to cyberattack China. Chris Christie opined that the best response to the OPM hack—which has not been publicly attributed to China by the White House—would be a tit-for-tat situation where the US hacked into China’s personnel database and stole its files.
Neither plan explained how starting a full-fledged cyberwar with China would do anything but put Americans in more danger of Chinese cyberattacks.
Can you be wrong if you’re so incomprehensible it’s impossible to tell what you’re actually saying? I’m going to say yes. Fiorina tried to justify her support for renewing the Patriot Act by telling a rambling and potentially classified story about helping the NSA stop a truck right after 9/11.
“Soon after 9/11,” Fiorina said, “I got a phone call from the NSA. They needed help. I gave them help. I stopped a truck load of equipment and I had it turned around. It was escorted by the NSA into headquarters.”
The moral here seems to be that private tech companies will fully cooperate with the NSA, given their CEO is a job-hemorrhaging incompetent.
Trump reaffirmed his belief that the US should shut down the internet last night, then later backpedaled and clarified that he only meant parts of the internet. “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” he said.
It’s not clear if Trump means he would force services with large ISIS presences (like Twitter) to shut down, or whether he means to shut down the internet in countries like Syria. Trump is pretty good at Twitter, but both of these scenarios are so absurd they suggest that he either truly doesn’t understand how the internet works, or he’s gotten to the point where he will literally say anything he wants without bothering to anchor it in reality. (I’m gonna guess it’s the latter.)
The US does not control the internet in Syria or other countries. It wouldn’t be able to do what Egypt did in 2011 by barricading online traffic because it wouldn’t have the authority to order foreign internet providers to do anything.
While the US could probably temporarily shut down regional access to the internet by hacking foreign internet providers and interfering with internet service on certain networks, this would hardly dismantle ISIS’s online campaign. It would make a minor blip in the internet, not shut it down.
Banning social platforms is equally ludicrous. This would eventually require banning all social platforms, since ISIS is known to jump from one service to another, and to use a wide variety of messaging options.
GIF via Nick “Windows Phone” Stango.