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Trump vs. Clinton on Your Digital Security, Privacy

As Election Day (Nov. 8) approaches, Tom's Guide is taking a look at where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stand on information security and digital privacy.

Credit: A. Katz / Shutterstock

(Image credit: A. Katz / Shutterstock)

Neither candidate has placed technological issues front and center. Yet the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and their subsequent publication online, plus Trump's own appeal to Russia to release emails stolen from Clinton's own email server, underscore the importance of digital security and privacy — not just to the political parties, but to us all.

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Clinton's public statements demonstrate what could be considered a moderate point of view, open to compromise on contentious issues. Trump's statements on the subjects are fewer and emphasize taking action, fighting back and asserting power.

Clinton's official website presents a laundry list of technology goals relating to innovation, defense and infrastructure. The corresponding positions section of Trump's official website references technology less often, and does so only within sections about modernizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. trade with China.

Privacy and Digital Surveillance

Trump's statements indicate that he may favor mass surveillance. In December, he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he thought it would be "fine" to reactivate the provision of the USA Patriot Act that allowed the National Security Agency to collect phone call metadata in bulk. (The provision was amended by the USA Freedom Act in 2015; the telephone companies themselves now retain the metadata.) Trump framed  surveillance as being in the nation's best interest to stop terrorist attacks.

So whom does Trump want to spy on?

"I want surveillance of certain mosques, OK? If that's OK?" Trump said at a rally last November. 

Credit: A. Katz / Shutterstock

(Image credit: A. Katz / Shutterstock)

He didn't specify whether he would use digital technology to spy on mosques, but in the same speech, he restated his desire to monitor Syrian refugees, claiming, "I want surveillance of these people that are coming in, the Trojan horse. I want to know who the hell they are."

Clinton isn't the polar opposite of Trump when it comes to surveillance. She says that the United States needs "to toughen our surveillance, our interception of communication."

As a senator in 2001, Clinton voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, but as a presidential candidate in 2015, she publicly supported the USA Freedom Act. The newer legislation extended most of the Patriot Act's provisions until 2019, but it shifted the collection and storage of domestic-phone-call metadata from the NSA to the telephone companies themselves.

Yet Clinton isn't the polar opposite of Trump when it comes to surveillance. In March, she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the United States needs "to toughen our surveillance, our interception of communication," following the terrorist attacks that killed more than 30 people in Brussels.

Information security

Information security bleeds into many other categories that Clinton and Trump have discussed. Judging by Trump's website, his priorities on cybersecurity focus heavily on China. The site states that "China's cyber lawlessness threatens our prosperity, privacy and national security."

In an October 2015 interview with Breitbart.com's Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump declared that "America should counterattack and make public every action taken by China to steal or disrupt our operations, whether they be private or governmental."

When pressed on whether he'd develop cyberweapons to fight back, Trump said, "Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future."

Current U.S. policy distinguishes between industrial espionage. or spying on private companies to steal trade secrets, and stealing government secrets. The former is considered foul play, but the latter fair game, at least by American spy agencies.

Credit: Carsten Reisinger / Shutterstock

(Image credit: Carsten Reisinger / Shutterstock)

Last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Obama reached an agreement in which the U.S. and China promised not to steal industrial secrets from each other. China seems to have adhered to that agreement.

Clinton's website states an intent to "press China to play by the rules — including in cyberspace." The position statement goes on to say that although Clinton wants to hold China accountable if it does not play by the rules, she would work with China where it is in the U.S.' best interest.

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At a July 2 event in New Hampshire, Clinton also accused China of stealing "commercial secrets ... from defense contractors," as well as "huge amounts of government information" from the United States. However, she explained her position that dealing with China's actions isn't as simple as punching back.

In a July 22 interview with The New York Times, David Sanger asked Trump about national security during a time of cyberattacks that "clearly appear to be coming from Russia."

Trump responded in vague terms, declaring, "Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present. Look, we're under cyberattack; forget about them. And we don't even know where it's coming from."

When pressed on whether he'd develop cyberweapons to fight back, Trump responded, "Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future."

Encryption and Backdoor Access   

The ongoing debate about the right to encryption pits privacy and data security against law enforcement's right to access conversations and devices with a warrant. Encrypted conversations take place on commercially available platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Apple's iMessage, creating private back channels, and the full disk encryption available on iOS devices can no longer be cracked by Apple itself.

Clinton referred to the encryption conflict as "one of the most difficult dilemmas that we're faced with," and urged "the government and our great tech companies" to find a compromise.

The most famous and talked-about incident is Apple's refusal to unlock the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The device wasn't Farook's; it belonged to his employer, the County of San Bernardino Department of Public Health. The FBI wanted to see if there was stored data on it that could indicate if Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were communicating with anyone overseas.

Apple said it would not assist the FBI in unlocking the device and refused to disable the iPhone's incorrect-password entry delay and factory-reset safeguards. Doing so, the company argued, would undermine the security of all iPhones.

Credit: JStone / Shutterstock

(Image credit: JStone / Shutterstock)

At a February MSNBC/Telemundo town hall event, Clinton referred to the overall conflict over encryption as "one of the most difficult dilemmas that we're faced with," and urged "the government and our great tech companies" to find a compromise.

A platform statement on Clinton's website supports the national commission to study digital security and encryption proposed by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. The proposed commission has met resistance from both sides of this debate: Law enforcement officials want quicker resolution, and privacy advocates oppose any kind of government intervention.

Trump took the FBI's side in the fight over the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, asking, "Who do they think they are?" of Apple in a February appearance on Fox News. He later urged his supporters to boycott Apple until it decrypted Farook's iPhone, and Trump said he would not use his own iPhone. (Trump was back to tweeting from Twitter for iPhone after three weeks.)

Trump took the FBI's side in the fight over the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, asking, "Who do they think they are?" of Apple

Snowden

Trump has said he opposes online espionage against the United States, but he seems to make exceptions. On Twitter, Trump twice (on Oct. 30, 2013, and April 18, 2014) called for the execution of NSA document leaker Edward Snowden.

Trump provided a caveat for when he first called for Snowden's execution, noting that "if … [Snowden] could reveal Obama's records, [he] might become a major fan."

Trump's more recent call for espionage happened after he secured the Republican Party's nomination, when he implored "Russia or any other country or person" to "find [Hillary Clinton's] 33,000 deleted emails."

Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last month, called Trump's comments "shocking and dangerous."

Clinton's thoughts regarding Snowden are more restrained. At an October 2015 debate among Democratic primary candidates, she declared that Snowden shouldn't be allowed back into the United States "without facing the music" — that is, going on trial or facing jail time. While Snowden hasn't expressed support for any candidate, he's tweeted that both he himself and Clinton broke rules for handling sensitive government documents.