This column has been updated since it was first published.
Donald Trump likes his technology like he likes his decor: stuck in the ’80s.
For all the praise he receives for embracing 21st-century social media, the president-elect seems to understand little about modern technology. And he exhibits even less interest in learning about it.
“I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” he babbled last week. “The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure you have the kind of security that you need.”
Ah, yes, that fabled Age of Computer. I believe it dawned when the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.
Three days later, at his New Year’s Eve party, the president-elect doubled down on Luddism while professing to know “a lot about hacking.”
Asked about the role cybersecurity policy will play in his administration, he steered Americans toward bike messengers.
“If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe. I don’t care what they say, no computer is safe,” he said. “I have a boy who’s 10 years old, he can do anything with a computer. You want something to really go without detection, write it out and have it sent by courier.”
Again, this was in response to a question not about how he keeps his tax returns confidential, but about national cybersecurity policy.
This is hardly the first time Trump has expressed distrust of newfangled technological gizmos.
“I don’t do the email thing,” Trump said in a 2007 deposition.
“I’m not an email person myself,” Trump echoed during that infamous July news conference in which he invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. “I don’t believe in it because I think it can be hacked, for one thing.”
And at a February rally: “I go to court and they say, ‘Produce your emails.’ I say I don’t have any.”
His email abstention is not merely about information security or limiting his legal liability, however. He sends snail-mail messages even when he expects them to be widely disseminated, as any journalist who’s received one of his gold-Sharpied nastygrams can attest.
Perhaps, unlike most Americans — including my email-proficient nonagenarian grandfather and a majority of Trump’s fellow senior citizens — he simply hasn’t bothered to learn how to use the interwebs.
Avoiding computers may indeed be a relatively reliable, if productivity-limiting, strategy for guarding sensitive material. Other successful chief executives have also famously eschewed digital communications, though it’s hard to imagine any entrepreneur becoming successful today without at least a passing familiarity with post-1993 modes of interaction.
However Trump has run things at the Trump Organization, though, communicating exclusively via courier hardly seems like a scalable strategy for combating international cyberwarfare.
Couriers may be useful if you and your intended recipient are in the same city. But what if you need to quickly transmit a sensitive message across, say, the coasts? Or the hemispheres? Does Trump hope to Make Carrier Pigeons Great Again?
More important — and I can’t believe this requires spelling out — cybersecurity is not merely about person-to-person communications (i.e., services for which couriers might plausibly substitute). It’s also about all kinds of other data, code and digitized operations.
Health records, for example. Or trade secrets, and valuable inside information about mergers or drug trials. Or financial markets, or banking transactions. Or voting machines. Or maybe even the code running a public utility, which hackers have targeted before.
Astonishingly, Trump’s imagination for what computers can do — and therefore what technical vulnerabilities today’s companies, consumers and governments might face — appears limited by the observed skill set of his 10-year-old son.
Trump has twice now mentioned Barron as his touchstone for technical savvy when answering questions about cyberattacks. And, hey, maybe the kid is unusually good at navigating the series of tubes. But Russian and Chinese hackers are probably better.
Trump’s recent comments bode ill for federal investments in cyberdefense. They do help explain his economic worldview, however. His technical incuriosity helps us understand why, for example, he (wrongly) believes that manufacturing jobs are primarily disappearing due to insufficient tariffs, rather than automation. And it illuminates why he’s so keen on rebooting obsolete jobs in the first place, rather than investing in forward-looking sectors such as clean energy, biotech — or cybersecurity.
If Trump gets his way, maybe the “Age of Computer” will be shorter than we think.
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