Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Trump vs. Clinton: Cybersecurity

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows


Back in February, Hillary Clinton called cybersecurity “one of the most important challenges the next president is going to face.” But she may not have expected it to become one of her greatest challenges as a presidential nominee. After months of criticism regarding her private email server as secretary of state, Wikileaks has now also released thousands of supposedly hacked emails from her presidential campaign.

As Donald Trump touts the emails as evidence of Clinton’s “crooked” campaign, we looked into each nominee’s positions on cybersecurity. 

Clinton’s Private Server

Hillary Clinton has faced cybersecurity concerns since before she began her second presidential campaign because of her use of a private email while secretary of state, which was connected to a home-based server not protected against intruders. When the news broke in March of 2015, she defended her choice as a matter of “convenience” and said she regretted the decision. She has also repeatedly testified that nothing marked classified was sent or received from the server, although investigations have shown eight documents included “top secret information,” 36 contained “secret information, and another eight included classified information (the lowest level of classification). Two thousand additional emails have been retroactively classified.

FBI Director James Comey declined to prosecute Clinton but called her actions “extremely careless.” She has since been trying to distance herself from the controversy, citing cybersecurity as a central issue to her campaign, even as she continues to get questions about it at presidential debates.

Trump has wasted no time in slamming Clinton for her use of the private server. In a speech earlier this month, he said his opponent’s “only experience in cybersecurity involves a criminal scheme to violate federal law, engineering a massive cover up and putting the nation in harm's way.” His cybersecurity platform even includes four points that blast Clinton’s actions: she placed “U.S. secrets at risk by using an unsecured email server”; she used a personal Blackberry on the territory of “sophisticated adversaries” outside the U.S.; she did not understand that “C” meant “Confidential”; and she “destroyed and bleached” 33,000 emails.

Most recently, Trump suggested that Clinton should be jailed for her actions. At the second presidential debate, he pledged to “instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your [missing email] situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception."

Throughout his whole campaign, Trump has portrayed himself in contrast to Clinton on the matter, and has vowed to make cybersecurity a priority if elected president by ordering a “thorough review of cyber defenses and weaknesses” by a Cyber Review team of individuals from the military, law enforcement and the private sector.


The debate over encryption hit center stage in February, when Apple refused the government’s request for help in unlocking the iPhone of a man accused of killing 14 people during a terror attack in San Bernardino. While Apple CEO Tim Cook argued that the software necessary to unlock the phone could jeopardize the security of other iPhones, FBI Director Jim Comey warned that encrypted electronics were creating "warrantproof" spaces in important investigations.

As Trump was in the middle of his battle for the Republican nomination, he weighed in on the question of encryption by suggesting a boycott of Apple. In a February tweet, Trump threatened to stop using Apple products in favor of Samsung’s until they offered the FBI their assistance. He then went even further during an MSNBC town hall when he called Apple’s refusal to help “disgraceful” and proposed that the government “force them to do it.”

Clinton’s stance on the conflict was much more ambiguous. She did not express clear support of either Apple or the FBI during an MSNBC and Telemundo town hall with primary rival Bernie Sanders. Instead, Clinton acknowledged the interests of both parties and the “legitimate dilemma” facing them, while imploring the government and tech companies to “keep working together” in order to “find some common ground.”

Hacking of American data by Foreign Actors

The hacking of American data came to the forefront of the election when it was announced the DNC was hacked in June. After officials claimed that the hack was likely tied to the Russian government, Trump urged Russia to find the rest of Clinton’s missing emails in July. He has since suggested that it is not certain that Russia was even behind the attacks, saying at the first presidential debate: “I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC… 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?”

Despite these remarks, Trump has proposed an overall increase of cybersecurity. His platform states that he would order a review of the country’s current cybersecurity defenses and vulnerabilities, while building up defense technologies and increasing cyber awareness training for all government employees.

Clinton recently bore the brunt of a hack of her campaign, leading to the release of private emails from her campaign chairman, John Podesta. She has harshly condemned the attacks, tying it to Russia and comparing it to “Watergate, only now in cyber time.” She even used the attack to blast her opponent, saying it was “interesting” that the attacks have happened as Trump is the nominee, given he “early on allied himself with Putin’s policies.”

To combat similar cyber hacks in the future, Clinton has pledged to treat them “just like any other attack” and “be ready with serious political, economic and military responses.”