That said, it's sort of amazing how little the two candidates for the presidency seem to know about one of the most important aspects of American society — the Internet.
In a speech Monday, Trump started talking about Clinton's email server and the deletion of emails that hadn't been identified as work-related.
"Frankly, no one has ever seen anything like what's happening today," Trump said in the speech in Herndon, Va. "When you have somebody getting a subpoena from the United States Congress to have your emails and all other information sent, and after — not before, after — getting the subpoena, 33,000 emails are deleted and acid-washed, and nobody even knows what that means, acid-washed. It's a very expensive thing to do. Most people don't even know what it means."
Well, most people do know what "acid-washed" means: It is a process for making blue jeans appropriate for being worn at a 1991 Queensryche concert. In the context of deleting things from a server, though, no, no one knows what it means, because it's not a thing. Trump appears to have been thinking of "BleachBit," a software tool that securely deletes files from computer operating systems and which Clinton's tech staff used to ensure that her emails couldn't be read. In the real world, "acid" and "bleach" are sort of the same thing (except that chlorine is a base, not an acid). In the computer world, they are not equivalent.
Also, BleachBit is open-source. Or, put another way, free.
The Herndon speech included an extended exploration of Trump's cybersecurity policies. Trump, in his new campaign style, alternated between reading prepared remarks from the teleprompter and speaking off the cuff about the issue. While the former included some policy prescriptions for cybercrime and cyberwarfare that are questionable, it was the off-the-cuff stuff that was pretty far off the mark. (At the debate, you may recall, it was all off-the-cuff — and all pretty hard to parse.)
"We should turn cyberwarfare into one of our greatest weapons against the terrorists," Trump said, reading from his prepared comments. Then he started riffing. "And they have to know it's coming," he said, undercutting his argument elsewhere in the speech that telegraphing military moves was a mistake. "Because right now they know nothing about us. It just seems they have an open blanket, it's like an open mark, do whatever you want to do, nothing's going to happen, take our youth out of the country, infiltrate our country in so many different ways. We can't let this happen. We have to have this stopped immediately before it's too late."
Trump habitually seems to conflate the online propaganda used by the Islamic State with cyberwarfare, which is a bit like confusing pamphlets dropped into a war zone with the release of high-explosive ordnance. The Islamic State has effectively leveraged social media to pitch its cause internationally, but the group doesn't seem to have made infiltrating or disrupting online systems part of its efforts.
"We will put together a team of our best military, civilian and private-sector cybersecurity experts to comprehensively review all of our cybersecurity systems and technologies," Trump read. "The cyber review team will proceed with the most sensitive systems first, but ultimately all systems will be analyzed and made as secure as modern technology permits" — turn to camera — "and hopefully that's going to be our technology."
Well, yes. The technology the government uses to secure government systems will almost certainly need to be either open-source or American-made. This is a non-trivial thing. One of the revelations from the Edward Snowden leaks was that routers and firewalls made by Cisco were altered by the National Security Agency before being sent overseas so that the government could access them. The government is smart enough to understand that using technologies made in other countries runs the risk of opening ourselves up to the same problem.
Trump argued that what is needed to fight cybercrime is a unified effort like that which took down the Mob. The Mafia was "allowed to grow into a nationwide organization which infiltrated and corrupted so many areas of society for such a long period of time."
"We can learn from this history," Trump continued, "that when the Department of Justice, the FBI, the DEA and the state and local police and prosecutors were combined in a task force directed by — and at the Mafia, when they looked at the Mafia and really went after it, they were really able to get great, great successes and prosecutions out of them. And seizing their business interests, did a lot of things. ... They've been very, very effective when everybody got together."
Except that the Mafia's crimes — drugs, racketeering, protection, extortion and so on — were mostly committed locally. There were Mafiosi on the streets of Little Italy and New Jersey. There was an international element, of course, but crimes in the United States couldn't be committed from a small apartment building in Vladisvostok or a house three hours outside of Shanghai. More can and must be done, certainly, but analogizing cybercrime to the Mafia misses that crime committed over the Internet is functionally completely different than the sorts of crime the government fought a century ago.
It's absolutely the case that Clinton's personal expertise on Internet issues in many ways doesn't seem to be much stronger. (Asked if she'd wiped her email server, she famously replied, "What, like, with a cloth?") Trump's characterization of her "only experience in cybersecurity" being the email server is clearly unfounded, though, given that the WikiLeaks release of foreign cables happened on her watch. Her obliviousness about key aspects of her email system, though, has proven to be a recurring headache. (Clinton's website doesn't offer specifics on her own cybersecurity plans.)
Trump's failure to understand Internet basics, though, is compounded with his desire to make hyperbolic claims about his opponent. She received a "tremendous subpoena"; the FBI interview with her happened on a "massive holiday"; and when it comes to deleting emails, "no one has ever seen anything like what's happening today."
Cybercrime is a real issue. Hacking is a real issue. The overlap between future armed conflicts and the need to protect or disrupt online infrastructure is a real threat. That can be hard to tell, though, given the treatment the issue has gotten in this campaign.