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Why Aren't Presidential Candidates Talking About Cybersecurity?

Controversial legislation, massive security breaches, and thorny relations with China could eventually push the issue into the media spotlight.
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Cybersecurity isn't the sexiest topic on the campaign trail right now. But controversial legislation, massive security breaches, and thorny relations with China could eventually push the issue into the media spotlight.

For now, most of the presidential hopefuls are staying mum on the issue, even as hackers keep making headlines.

"It's a complex topic," Steve Morgan, founder and CEO of Cybersecurity Ventures, told NBC News. "It's like quicksand: Once they step into it, they're going to sink. They just aren't equipped to talk about it."

None of the websites for the four potential candidates leading the polls — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, Donald Trump and Ben Carson for the Republicans — lists their positions on cybersecurity issues.

For voters who care about cybersecurity, it can be tough to figure out where the candidates stand. Some of them, however, have left clues in comments to the media and their voting records.


Bernie Sanders is one of the few candidates to take a definitive stance on the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which was passed by the Senate this week. The senator from Vermont, like many tech industry leaders and Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul, opposes the bill on privacy grounds.

(A quick primer: CISA supporters say that it could prevent security breaches in the future by encouraging private companies to voluntarily share information on cyberattacks with the government. Opponents don't like the potential for abuse, especially after the details of the National Security Agency's surveillance program were made public.)

Sanders supported the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which was opposed by privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — although the group commended him on championing "civil liberties fixes to the bill."

Hillary Clinton, who leads Sanders among likely Democratic voters in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, hasn't taken a public stance on CISA. At a campaign event in Iowa over the summer, she stressed the importance of beefing up cyberdefenses against China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

"The United States, both our government and the private sector, have to recognize this is a serious threat," she said, according to Reuters. "We've been trying to get a good plan going forward. We're making a little bit of progress on that in the Congress. For me, it's not enough."

At a women's leadership conference February, Clinton didn't pick a side when it came to whether or not the federal government should have a "back door" into encrypted communications -- something the FBI has been pushing for, but major tech companies have decried as impossible to do without making users' information vulnerable to hackers.

Clinton told Re/Code's Kara Swisher that while companies have a right to protect user data, "we also don't want to find ourselves in a position where it's a legitimate security threat we're facing and we can't figure out how to address it because we have no way into whatever is holding the information."

Related: What You Need to Know About the Clinton Email Controversy

Her stance on cybersecurity is complicated by the fact she used a private email account to send work-related messages while serving as Secretary of State, which critics claim was a security risk.

NBC News reached out to both Democratic campaigns to comment on cybersecurity, but they did not respond.


When it comes to cybersecurity issues, Donald Trump hasn't said much to mainstream media organizations.

"In fairness to him, he really hasn't been asked the right questions," Morgan said, saying that the press should be pushing potential candidate on issues of privacy and security, especially in debates.

When asked by NBC News on Trump's views, the campaign pointed to a short interview on cybersecurity issues the candidate gave to conservative website He said that the NSA should be "given as much leeway as possible" to do its job, as long as it doesn't interfere with the Fourth Amendment. He also had harsh words for China, calling alleged hacks originating from the country "actions border on being acts of war" which should be met with a "counter attack."

Trump knows firsthand the sting of being hit by hackers after his luxury hotel chain was the victim of a security breach that might have exposed credit card information.

Like Trump, Ben Carson hasn't said much to major news organizations about cybersecurity. The former neurosurgeon did strike a libertarian tone in his book "A More Perfect Union," where, according to USA TODAY, he wrote that "surreptitiously tracking phone calls, purchasing activity, Web site visitation history, and a host of other activities is tantamount to the illegal search and seizure forbidden by the Fourth Amendment."

(The Carson campaign did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News).

David Thaw, a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, is glad the candidates are talking about the NSA. He just wishes they would expand on how they would handle the privacy practices of companies such as Facebook, Apple and broadband providers.

"It's not just about government surveillance," Thaw told NBC News. "It’s also about what are we asking regulatory agencies to require of the private sector."

Of the Republican hopefuls polling above 6 percent in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only former Florida governor Jeb Bush has written at length on the issue of cybersecurity on his website.

Bush heavily criticized President Barack Obama for his administration's handling of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) security breach, which affected more than 21.5 million people.

Unlike Carson or Rand Paul, Bush favors giving federal agencies more access to data. About the NSA, he wrote that "we must stop demonizing these quiet intelligence professionals and start giving them the tools they need."

He supports CISA, writing that the United States should "reduce legal and technical barriers to cybersecurity information sharing between the federal government and private sector."

Why candidates need to talk about cybersecurity

The fact that only Bush has mapped out a comprehensive cybersecurity policy troubles Morgan. Thanks to party affiliation, most voters can guess where politicians stands on issues like healthcare or immigration. That isn't true for cybersecurity.

"I don't think candidates or voters can say, 'This is a Democratic or Republican position on cybersecurity," he said. "That is why we have to get the candidates talking about this."

When one of those candidates become president, he or she will have much more sway over cybersecurity policy than other domestic issues.

"They talk a lot about taxes in presidential campaigns," Thaw said. "I find that curious, because the president's role in tax policy has limits. Congress writes the tax code."

The president nominates the heads of several agencies, including the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, which hold significant sway over how the Internet is regulated.

"The president, as a policymaker, plays a much bigger role than in cybersecurity issues," Thaw said.

But for right now, the men and women who want to occupy the Oval Office really aren't talking about the issue.