'very tough on cyber'

Technology took center stage this election—even though no one understands it

Elena Scotti/FUSION

At the first presidential debate in September, Donald Trump said a lot of really stupid shit about “the cyber.”

Trump said, among other things, that the United States was doing poorly at the cyber, that ISIS was beating the U.S. at it, that his 10-year-old son Barron was very good at computers (unbelievably so), that cybersecurity is hard (maybe even “hardly doable”), and that the U.S. needs to do better when it comes to the cyber.

It was an incoherent mess, and Trump was mocked for it. But his rambling was emblematic of a bigger trend this election: ~Digital technologies~ have been omnipresent, discussed and covered widely, yet not always completely understood. Leaks, hacks, and digitally preserved audio have taken center stage in election coverage. Stories about information security, cyber-warfare, and the way the internet works have been tossed around constantly, but sometimes rife with basic misunderstanding that has made them drastically misleading.

There was the DNC email breach; Hillary Clinton’s ever-looming private email server; Trump’s July comment encouraging hacking by foreign governments; and John Podesta (and Colin Powell) getting phished. If you want to go farther afield in terms of what you think of about as technology, the tape of Trump saying lewd things about women to Billy Bush was found because it was digitally archived. (Shy of drastic changes there will only be more and greater access to digital archives in future elections; it’s enough to make you want to delete every one of your tweets even if you’re a lowly tech blogger with no filter or political aspirations.)

But unlike some of the more immediately apparent bullshit that gets passed around (e.g. that Clinton and aide Huma Abedin are lovers, or that Antonin Scalia was murdered), technology-related news presents a thornier problem: It’s, and please pardon me here, technical. Yet we feel like we understand it, because we too use email and deal everyday with the fear of being hacked or having our digital trails used against us.

Maybe it’s an unearned sense of familiarity that sets the response to the more tech-y stories this election cycle apart from, say, those about taxes. Taxes are complex, maybe you pay somebody to do yours, or have some software that does them for you. But tech is something we deal with every day. We think we get it—despite surveys like the one Pew conducted in late 2014 that showed that less than a third of Americans are familiar with even basic concepts that underlie the internet and other widely used technologies. Yet every Facebook commenter and overpaid CNN panelist who ever caught 5 minutes of CSI: Cyber (RIP) becomes an information security expert.

In some cases journalists haven’t helped. For example, on Monday, Slate published a dramatically told, but ultimately misleading story about a secret Trump Organization server sending information to Alfa Bank, a giant Russian commercial bank. Relying on data logs of internet activity intended for malware investigations, and citing various anonymous computer scientists whose information was inconsistent, author Franklin Foer wrote that the server “deserves further explanation,” but suggested that communication of a nefarious sort was regularly being exchanged by the Trump campaign and the Russian bank.

Experts looked askance at the story and other outlets revealed they’d had the same evidence Foer used but passed on the story after realizing it didn’t amount to much. According to the Intercept, the connection was most likely the result of an Alfa Bank employee receiving spammy marketing emails for Trump’s hotels.

Meanwhile, the Slate article was shared 110,000 times on Facebook and 59,000 times on Twitter (as of my writing this sentence) and the Clinton campaign had a field day with it, sharing the story four times in three hours and issuing a statement on the matter, calling the server a “secret hotline” to Russia.

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At the heart of the story was Domain Name System (DNS), which works behind the scenes to let users reach websites and allows servers to look up and contact each other. Despite the fact that the American public was jarringly introduced to the DNS and what life can be like without its help by a massive distributed denial-of-service attack not two weeks before the Slate story went up, it was still confusing, and it took a day for the disgruntled wisdom of technologists to make it into article form, which Foer wrote an unconvincing rejoinder to on Wednesday, leading to more debunking. Of course, articles debunking a story rarely travel as far as the original story, and whether people will believe the debunking depends on whether they are convinced by further technical analysis.

Then, of course, there are the various email-related stories that have plagued Clinton, from the use of a private email server while she served in the State Department to hacks of the emails of the people and organizations around her. Since Romanian hacker Guccifer first released hacked emails from long-time Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal in early 2013, they’ve raised valid questions about her commitment to transparency, her staff’s relationship with the press, and her inner circle’s general trustworthiness, among other things. That’s been compounded by the more recent hack of the DNC and her campaign chairman John Podesta, and the release of their emails by Wikileaks.

Getting hacked is a technological occurrence that most people can understand. More confusing has been Clinton’s private email server and what happened to protect the classified material that passed through it. There’s the destruction of phones with hammers, which the Trump campaign has repeatedly held up as evidence of wrongdoing, alongside the use of a program called BleachBit, which is used to destroy data. Trump has wrongly referred to the use of BleachBit as bleaching or even “acid-wash,” conjuring images of melting hard drives.

If we put aside general concerns about how secretive the federal government is (which we shouldn’t), we’re faced with the fact that the way Clinton’s team destroyed her phones and data aren’t unusual for classified material, and in fact, they should’ve done a much more thorough job. But the talk of bleaching emails is what spreads.

This is part of a broader epistemic problem that’s become particularly acute this election. Farhad Manjoo described this nicely on Wednesday, writing about how in the past year, documentary evidence seems to carry less weight and lies are “institutionalized by hyper-partisan actors.” Manjoo says the problem lies with the internet, though it might be more accurate to pin things on social networks and Facebook specifically, since that’s where pages can make tens of thousands of dollars a month by presenting bullshit news as if it’s true.

What all this suggests isn’t just, as Mike Masnick pointed out in August, that the next president won’t understand technology no matter who’s elected, but that the country as a whole doesn’t really know how to talk about technology or the internet. That’s scary not just because it means that Americans will go vote based in part on dubious claims they don’t understand, but that they don’t understand ubiquitous but incredibly fragile tech infrastructure. Meanwhile, millions are hacked and people feel so tired of dealing with passwords and the like that they begin to feel “security fatigue,” putting themselves at more risk.

Better luck in 2020, I guess?