The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton and Trump are looking for an easy out on the Internet. Don’t give it to them.

Donald Trump. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are about as different stylistically as can be. But when it comes to Internet policy, they're both equally in the dark — and just as willing to dismiss gaps in their thinking by making vague assumptions about America's engineering know-how.

This resort to hand-waving about "brilliant people" is problematic, not least because some of the very technologists whom the candidates invoke to justify their positions are the same people telling them things aren't as easy as they seem. The result is a political dialogue about technology and terrorism that not only evades the complexities of the issues but also increases the likelihood of policy mistakes derived from a misshapen tech worldview.

Clinton and Trump share the belief that technology has a vital role to play in fighting terrorism. Specifically, Trump has proposed shutting down parts of the Internet that the Islamic State uses to recruit people; Clinton wants a way to see criminal communications without undermining the technology that protects sensitive online data ranging from credit card transactions to personal photos.

Although Clinton began answering a question in Saturday's Democratic debate by rejecting the idea of encryption back doors — the idea of requiring tech companies to give law enforcement special access to otherwise protected Internet communications — she pleaded moments later for a "Manhattan-like project" to accomplish, at the very least, something similar.

"It doesn't do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after," she said. "There must be some way. I don't know enough about the technology, Martha, to be able to say what it is, but I have a lot of confidence in our tech experts."

Like Clinton, Trump is also prone to praising the boundless ingenuity of U.S. software engineers.

"We should be using our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds, to figure a way that ISIS cannot use the Internet," Trump said during this month's Republican presidential debate.

Sounds reasonable. And to their credit, the candidates are at least willing to concede that they lack the right answers themselves. But the way they've framed their approach all but forces them to rely on unnamed "smart people" as a rhetorical shortcut. This debate tactic that presumes an undiscovered technological solution is just around the corner is the only logical way to bypass the thorny technical problems preventing them from carrying out the policies of their dreams.

But there are limits to the capacity of America's computer engineers, according to Jonathan Korman, a user experience designer at the e-signature company DocuSign.

"Many people seem to think that the Manhattan Project shows that you can just order up any breakthrough you want and if you give enough scientists enough money, they will just cook it up for us," Korman wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "That's not how it works … scientists are not short-order cooks."

It doesn't help that the very people who would be charged with designing and implementing these fantastical solutions have directly challenged the candidates' premise.

"No one person owns [the Internet]," Charlie Baker, a product exec at the Web infrastructure company Dyn, told ABC in the wake of Trump's debate remarks. It is effectively impossible to shut down whole swaths of the Internet, assuming you can accurately identify those parts of it that ought to be closed down.

[Trump's ignorance about the Internet is even more terrifying than you think]

Meanwhile, tech companies and privacy experts have consistently pushed back on claims from Clinton and others that "there must be a way" to spy only on criminals' encrypted messages without compromising the security of well-meaning Internet users.

"It’s perhaps tempting to hope that technologists will find a way to build law-enforcement backdoors that don’t unduly compromise security. We built the Internet and the smartphone after all, and surely this can’t be much harder than that! Unfortunately, it really is," Matt Blaze, an associate professor who studies cryptography at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post.

It's understandable how Clinton and Trump can come away unchallenged on the point about America's technical prowess. It's a logical reflection of our national reverence for technology, particularly in light of all the seemingly wondrous innovation that occurs in Silicon Valley. For similar reasons, it's politically advantageous to valorize the startups and tech firms that now reportedly account for six percent of U.S. GDP.

Ironically, our political class's tendency to champion technology's capabilities is probably a result, at least in part, of Apple's success. With lots of effort, Steve Jobs convinced us all that our current era of technology does sometimes resemble magic. (Louis CK also has a famous bit on this.) Given the unprecedented economic and cultural activity to which the smartphone gave birth, it seems completely rational to expect that our engineers could knock down big, technological barriers to hunting terrorists.

After wowing us for so long, companies like Apple are now trying to tamp down some of that mystical feeling.

"The best minds in the world cannot rewrite the laws of mathematics," Apple wrote to British lawmakers Monday. "Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data will by extension weaken the protection."

Certainly, Apple has public relations and business motivations for aligning the company with privacy advocates. But when CEO Tim Cook says on "60 Minutes" that "in the case of encrypted information, we don't have it to give,"  he's doing something else, too: He's tactically undermining dangerously optimistic impressions of Silicon Valley omnipotence.