Did Russians hack the Democratic National Committee’s E-mail, thereby helping tip the presidential election to Trump’s advantage? President Obama says so, and recently sanctioned Russia in response.
The Russian hack is only the latest information security crisis that the Obama administration has had to deal with. From NSA surveillance to “net neutrality” regulations, to how to respond to foreign hackers, policy coming from the White House has the potential to affect foreign relations and the way ordinary Americans use the Internet.
How will the new president deal with the myriad information technology issues the country is facing? Here’s what he said during the first presidential debate, in response to a question about Russian hacking:
“I don’t think anybody knows that it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia—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, okay? …
“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. We have so many things that we have to do better.”
On his website, Trump’s campaign put forward a more coherent but still vague set of policy goals, including establishing a “Cyber Review Team” to improve “cyber defenses” and developing offensive hacking capabilities to retaliate against information incursions.
Trump will need a team of experts presumably more qualified than his 10-year-old son. When Obama grappled with similar questions, he recruited some of the most prominent computer experts in the country, including Ed Felten, a Princeton computer science professor. Felten was asked to serve in the Obama administration in 2015 and was appointed in 2016 to the new position of deputy chief technology officer. His background made him an ideal fit for a broader Obama effort to bring in experts from Silicon Valley and academia to help set federal information technology policy. In addition to his research and teaching, Felten has blogged about Internet freedom and data security issues at his website, www.freedom-to-tinker.com.
On most issues, Felten represents the freedom-loving counterculture that defined the early Internet and resists government regulation and surveillance, and he was viewed as an unorthodox choice for a White House job. In 2001, he sued the Recording Industry Association of America after exposing a security vulnerability in a copyright protection scheme. In 2006, Felten made a video demonstrating how hackers could break into electronic voting machines. He was a fierce critic of the Obama administration’s continued use of the NSA for mass telephone surveillance, joining in an ACLU lawsuit over mass call tracking.
Felten first used computers when he was a kid, to help his father run his plumbing supply company. He graduated from CalTech in 1985 with a degree in physics, then joined an experimental group that was building computers for the physics department. He earned his doctorate in computer science at the University of Washington and came to Princeton in 1993 (U.S. 1, August 20, 2003).
Since joining the White House, Felten has helped Obama develop policy on a number of issues. His most public contribution has been co-authoring a report on the future of artificial intelligence. The report said AI could play an important role in cybersecurity, among many other applications.
“Today’s Narrow AI has important applications in cybersecurity, and is expected to play an increasing role for both defensive (reactive) measures and offensive (proactive) measures. Currently, designing and operating secure systems requires a large investment of time and attention from experts. Automating this expert work, partially or entirely, may enable strong security across a much broader range of systems and applications at dramatically lower cost, and may increase the agility of cyber defenses. Using AI may help maintain the rapid response required to detect and react to the landscape of ever evolving cyber threats,” the report said.
Traditionally, a new presidency is accompanied by a large turnover in White House staff, so it’s unlikely Felten and the rest of Obama’s experts will remain on board to guide decision making.
Trump’s announced cabinet picks provide grounds for speculation about his future policies.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group, noted that his CIA director pick, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, is an outspoken defender of mass NSA surveillance who wants to roll back the Obama administration’s changes to the USA Patriot act that weakened government spying powers in favor of citizens’ privacy. Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions has taken similar positions. Furthermore, the EFF noted that Trump himself called for more spying on Muslims in particular.
Taken together with Trump’s calls to “shut down” parts of the Internet to prevent terrorist recruiting, the cabinet picks signal Trump has an instinct for using a heavier hand when dealing with “The Cyber” than Obama did. Felten did not respond to a request for comment.