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Presidential Debate 2016: Cybersecurity Highlights Significant Differences in Policy, Understanding Between Candidates

During Monday night's first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sparred on a number of issues, but their stances on cybersecurity and defense drew striking differences between the campaigns.

The first of three presidential debates Sept. 26 was full of the typical political jabs and deflections, but at least six minutes of the roughly two-hour ordeal fell to discussion of cybersecurity and the 21st-century threats facing the country.

During the debate, the stark differences between Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump were highlighted in their policies on jobs creation and growth to the need for policing and prison reform and immigration. But perhaps no divide was as glaring as their positions on cyberwarfare and defense.

When asked by NBC moderator and journalist Lester Holt how they would address cybersecurity challenges and the growing international threats online, Clinton pointed to “probing” aggression on the part of nation states, like Russia, and the need for firm national resolve.

“I think cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next president because, clearly, we’re facing at this point two different kinds of adversaries. There are the independent hacking groups that do it mostly for commercial reasons to try to steal information that they then can use to make money,” Clinton asserted. “But increasingly, we are seeing cyberattacks coming from states, organs of states. The most recent and troubling of these has been Russia.”

In his rebuttal, Trump was reluctant to pin a growing list of online assaults and data thefts to any one nation state, despite reports that support his opponent’s argument. He instead argued that perpetrators could be anyone, including overweight individuals launching attacks from the comfort of their homes.

“As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we are not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying 'Russia, Russia, Russia,' but I don’t – maybe it was,” Trump countered. “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It could also be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK.”

Whatever the case may be, Clinton called for a tougher stance on international cyberattacks and warned that the United States would protect its online assets. Though she made it clear her administration would not look forward to engaging in a “different kind of warfare,” she said aggression would be met with the necessary force.

“We need to make it very clear, whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or anybody else, the United States has much greater capacity," she said, "and we are not going to sit idly by and permit state actors to go after our information, our private-sector information or our public-sector information."

In his subsequent response, Trump shifted the conversation to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the need to get “very, very tough” with ISIS online.  

“We came in with the Internet, we came up with the Internet, and I think Secretary Clinton and myself would agree very much when you look at what ISIS is doing with the Internet, they’re beating us at our own game. ISIS. So, we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare. It is a huge problem,” he said. “I have a son, he’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough and maybe it’s hardly doable, but I will say we are not doing the job we should be doing. But that’s true throughout our whole governmental society.”

Trump ultimately offered little in the way of solutions to the problems of recruitment and radicalization in cyberspace. And the former Secretary of State agreed that defeating ISIS would, at least in part, require an online component. But she also added that the effort would require ongoing military action and the continued targeting of the group’s leadership.  

She also said the greater technology community would be an integral part of the limiting the reach of the extremist group.

“I think there are a number of issues we should be addressing. I have put forth a plan to defeat ISIS, it does involve going after them online,” Clinton said. “I think we need to do much more with our tech companies to prevent ISIS and their operatives from being able to use the Internet to radicalize, even direct, people in our country, in Europe and elsewhere.”

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at