The most recent Republican debate for the 2016 election was unsurprisingly dominated by the shadow of terrorism and war. The Paris attacks that killed more than 130 people, plus the 14 deaths in San Bernardino, California seem to have brought about a new-old sentiment among Republicans. The year is now somewhere between 2001 and 2005 again.
One thing that has changed since the height of Bush-and-Cheney paranoia? Technology. The Internet is our lives like it wasn’t in the pre-iPhone days. And with great dependence comes great(er) government-induced fear-mongering.
Encryption is often the big boogeyman, a sentiment which Ohio Gov. John Kasich expressed at the debate. As always, details of who used what to plan what terrorist attack never seem to matter so much as frightening hypotheticals. The NSA’s dragnet spying is vital. We are in danger every moment one legal justification for that program is down, and we must bring it back. So said Sen. Marco Rubio at the debate, a point that is generally echoed by every candidate on stage except for Sen. Rand Paul (and Sen. Ted Cruz on a good day).
These presidential candidates are pandering to the right, powerful people. Feds constantly say they cannot afford to “go dark.” Meaning, they need on-demand backdoor access to servers and mobile devices and cannot let technology leave them powerless to spy and snoop.
Apple and Google have responded to the question of how much they should oblige law enforcement by taking the decision out of their own hands altogether. Full device encryption is standard on all Apple and Android devices sold with the current operating systems. The keys for this encryption is stored locally and not held by Apple or Google. That’s one way to get around certain requests, and it is a way that ticks off many of the people who are dying to be the so-called leader of the free world.
Former Hewlett-Packer CEO Carly Fiorina spoke critically about tech at the debate as well. (She also he told the vaguest Tom Clancy novel plot summary of all time about the time she happily shared technology with the NSA, so they could more easily implement the STELLARWIND wiretapping.) She may be the most adamantly anti-technology, anti-Fourth Amendment of the Republican candidates, speaking about the PATRIOT Act not in terms of its horrible legacy, but in terms of something nice that needs a serious tune-up in 2015. In her mind, government’s job is to keep pace with each new method of communication, or new technological toy. The idea that anonymity has value has not occurred to her. Not when terrorists are out there. And companies shouldn’t need to be forced to comply, they should do it anyway.
Naturally, the idea that cyber-terrorists are a serious threat but also the government needs to be able to force backdoor access into devices is one that government officials can hold flawlessly in their compartmentalized minds. Even if the latter would make life much easier for any malevolent hacker. And even if law enforcement still has many other options when it comes to snooping out data and communications.
During the debate, endless frontrunner Donald Trump was asked yet again by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer what he actually meant by “closing that Internet” to fight terrorism as he suggested during a rally on Pearl Harbor Day. Blitzer managed to ask the question, but he still wasn’t detailed enough. Does Trump mean a Great Firewall of China equivalent at home? Building some kind of Internet-blocking deathray he’s come up with in his fevered imagination? Bombing any server he can find in any foreign nation? Taking a blowtorch to the First Amendment, and hoping the terrorists can be defeated that way?
In his traditional style, Trump managed to not answer Blitzer’s question while still confirming that he had no idea what he was talking about, but was damned confident about it. He wants to “penetrate the Internet” and find ISIS. ISIS must be stopped from using the web to entice American youth. So yes, he wouldn’t be averse to getting some of the top men in Silicon Valley to help in “closing down areas” of “our Internet.”
Trump appeared to be suffering under the wrong assumption that the Internethas an off switch to flip. It doesn’t. The (proto)Internet was originally intended to be a decentralized communication method that would survive nuclear war. It is a lot bigger, and a lot more impossible to stop these days. It crosses borders, too. Trump’s vague confidence about calling up Bill Gates and stopping certain Internet bits is creepy bluster, but it does not speak well of his commitment to freedom of speech.
Yet as bad as this answer was, it’s yet another area in which Trump sounds worse, but is simply not using the traditionally fancy politician’s bullshit spin. He is not so different than anyone else, including Hillary Clinton who dismisses those “freedom of speech, etc.” naysayers who stand in the way of her plans to mandate company backdoors, and to get at encrypted, terrorist communications.
If there is one thing we can depend upon, it’s that the grandmothers and grandfathers that make up the US government have no clue what kind of internets crazy kids today are using. Nor do they have a good sense of how the law should apply to these new mediums, which is why they do things like cram a broad surveillance-power bill into an enormous spending bill because they assume that is another good way to fight terrorists.
But the Internet is us. And as such, it deserves muscled Fourth Amendment protections, instead of holey ones. It should not be yet another casualty of the war on terror. And the key thing about the Internet is that it won’t be stopped completely. It has already won, no matter how politicians howl about taming its anarchic powers. However, bad laws can still weaken those powers. However, bad laws can still weaken its powers, and good, hands-off ones can let it do amazing things politicians can’t even dream of, but are still eager to stop.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.