The Expert's View with Jeremy Kirk

Governance & Risk Management , Incident & Breach Response , Managed Detection & Response (MDR)

Clinton, Trump Tackle Cybersecurity in Debate

Who's to Blame? Russia or a 400-Pound Person on Their Bed?
Clinton, Trump Tackle Cybersecurity in Debate
Composite image. Source: ABC News

The U.S. presidential nominees - Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump - ventured into new territory for their first presidential debate: cybersecurity. It marked one of the few subjects on which both candidates broadly agreed, although the exchange was marked with sharp jabs and an interesting attribution theory from Trump.

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Cybersecurity has never been so relevant, with the U.S. government investigating suspicions that Russia is behind a series of attacks against Democratic Party institutions and possibly trying to skew the election (see How Should US Respond If Russians Hacked DNC System?).

NBC newsman and debate moderator Lester Holt posed this question: "We want to start with a 21st century war happening every day in this country. Our institutions are under cyberattack, and our secrets are being stolen, so my question is: Who's behind it and how do we fight it?"

Clinton had first go, and didn't hold back, saying there's no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered cyberattacks against U.S. organizations.

"One of the things he's done is to let loose cyberattackers to hack into government files, to hack in personal files, hack in the Democratic National Committee," Clinton said. "And we recently have learned that this is one of their preferred methods of trying to wreak havoc and collect information."

In July, WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 emails stolen from the DNC's computer systems. A hacker going by the nickname Guccifer 2.0 claimed to have passed them to the organization while independently publishing confidential documents on a WordPress blog. Some security experts suspect Guccifer 2.0 may be linked with a Russian hacking group called Fancy Bear, one of two groups found to have infiltrated the DNC (see Leaked DNC Emails Show Lax Cybersecurity).

Clinton didn't pass up an immediate opportunity to swipe at Trump, either: "I know Donald's very praiseworthy of Vladimir Putin, but Putin is playing a really tough long game here." While she was speaking, Trump leaned forward and grumbled "wrong" into his microphone.

Trump sparked controversy in late June when he implored Russia to find some 30,000 emails that were deleted from Clinton's private email server she used as secretary of state. Clinton's use of a private email server has been a consistent thorn in the side of her campaign. An FBI investigation concluded that while Clinton was careless in using it, she didn't violate regulations for handling classified material.

Clinton's other answers on cybersecurity assumed a very presidential posture, almost as if she had already secured the job - the election is Nov. 8. She also fired off a preemptive warning about the U.S.'s offensive capabilities.

"We need to make it very clear whether it's Russia, China, Iran or anybody else, the United States has much greater capacity, 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," she said.

"And we're going to have to make it clear we don't want to use the kinds of tools that we have. We don't want to engage in a different kind of warfare. But we will defend the citizens of this country, and the Russians need to understand that."

The 400-Pound Cyberattacker

Trump's answer, like many in the debate, initially diverged from the question at hand. When he circled back, he said he agreed with Clinton that the U.S. should have strong cybersecurity capabilities. Then he addressed Russia.

"I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC," Trump said. "She's saying Russia, Russia, Russia. But I don't. Maybe it was. I mean it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don't know who broke into DNC."

No definitive evidence has emerged that links Russia to the DNC attacks, although several security companies have said forensic clues point to the groups nicknamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, which are believed to be working for Russia.

Trump then turned to the effects of the DNC hack, which revealed deep bias within the organization against candidate Bernie Sanders. The publication of the emails eventually led DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign, and the revelations infuriated Sanders supporters.

"Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people," Trump said. "Now whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don't know because the truth is under President Obama we've lost control of things we used to have control over."

Trump said the terrorist group referred to as ISIS or ISIL is beating "us at our own game" on the internet. "We have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare," he said. "It is a huge problem."

The full cybersecurity-debate segment is available on ABC News' website.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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