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The Candidates on Cyber Issues: Trump and Johnson

By October 18, 2016 Cybersecurity Readiness

In our last post we saw how Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein compare on major cyber issues. In brief, Clinton’s position is moderate and pragmatic, and Stein’s position is optimistic with laudable goals to eliminate cyberwarfare and to preserve internet freedom. Now, let’s turn our attention to Donald Trump and Gary Johnson’s positions on cyber issues.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s position on cyber issues is mostly one of building up offensive and defensive capabilities—it’s a policy not dissimilar to peace through strength. He wants to invest heavily in national offensive cyber capabilities. His goal is to make the military unmatched in cyberoffense and cyberdefense, and any attacks against the United States will be met by a proportional cyber response. In Trump’s view, cyberwarfare will be an invaluable tool against terrorists. Trump also takes a stark stance against Chinese hackers; he supports a zero-tolerance policy on intellectual piracy against US businesses. He is loath to admit, though, that Russian state-sponsored actors have been meddling in the US presidential election, but he acknowledges that Russia possesses advanced cyber capabilities. Trump doesn’t offer a formal position on internet freedom, but he has called for censorship of the internet, especially to stop the spread of the Islamic State’s ideology and propaganda. Beyond terrorism, Trump has also opposed the handover of functions of ICANN to an international stakeholder group. (ICANN ensures the stable operation of the internet, and it was under contract with the US Department of Commerce until October 2016.) It’s not entirely clear why Trump has opposed the move, though it may be that he values United States’ “control” of certain functions of the internet.

On domestic issues, Trump has come down on the side of government control. He has come out wholly against net neutrality—he has misconstrued the issue as an attack on conservative media. Trump has no quarrel with data collection, as he has claimed to be “fine” with restoring the bulk-collection powers specified in the USA PATRIOT Act. He reasons that the NSA must have the ability to collect electronic intelligence data, but that process must not violate the Fourth Amendment—that is, a warrant must be issued to surveil and collect data on a suspect. To this end, Trump proposes establishing a special court for oversight. Following the San Bernardino attack, Trump took an early, controversial stance in the FBI-Apple fight. He sided immediately with the FBI and called for a general boycott of Apple’s products. He argued that law enforcement must be able to ensure security and that companies must oblige government requests. Finally, Trump unequivocally rejects any calls to pardon Snowden. He considers Snowden a traitor and has considered execution a fitting punishment for the former NSA contractor.

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson’s positions on cyber issues in foreign policy are noticeably minimal. For Johnson, the government has overemphasized offensive cyber capabilities. His administration would turn attention toward cyberdefense and education to promote best practices. As for cyber relations, Johnson holds the simplest position: China is a valuable trading partner, and the United States should not intervene in other nations’ affairs. It’s unclear how he views Russia with regard to cyber issues. Johnson does make an effort to address internet freedom; he views internet freedom as a paramount issue. For him, the unrestricted flow of information and internet privacy are crucial to personal freedom. Like Clinton, he is against government-controlled internet, but he has gone further to call for total deregulation of the internet, which for starters means a reversal of the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Essentially, Johnson places greater faith in internet governance by private businesses than by the federal government.

Johnson’s limited-government ideology extends into his domestic cyber policy. Johnson has opposed net neutrality, though he does so because he rejects government regulation of the internet. He takes a more extreme position on privacy. He totally opposes warrantless government surveillance; security cannot come at the cost of individual privacy. Hence, he opposes bulk data collection and the USA PATRIOT Act. He has even called for the abolition of the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. Furthermore, Johnson is against government-mandated backdoors to encryption. He believes that users have the right to employ encryption as they deem necessary. Hence, he came out in support of Apple and private businesses generally following the attack in San Bernardino. Of all the candidates, Johnson is the only one to not commit to a position regarding Snowden. Although he has come to revere Snowden as a hero, Johnson is hesitant to commit to a pardon. He has at most declared that he would consider a pardon, but for now he is unsure.


All the candidates lack substantive cyber policies. Clinton’s platform at least provides general, lofty promises and goals, but the implementation details are lacking. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the candidates have paid little public attention to cyber issues. If cybersecurity truly is an important challenge, then we would expect serious policy proposals in the candidates’ platforms. Instead, the candidates’ positions are mostly informal, superficial, and ad hoc in some cases. While this is not an endorsement of Clinton, she is the only candidate thus far to formally consider cyber issues in her platform. Time is running out for the other candidates to develop their respective cyber platforms.