- - Sunday, January 3, 2016

GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina’s answer to the ongoing debate between the FBI and tech companies about cyber encryption was pure obfuscation, disingenuous and dangerous. Moderator Wolf Blitzer’s question to Mrs. Fiorina was straightforward: “[Silicon Valley tech companies] say they won’t help the FBI crack encrypted communication from ISIS. Should they be forced to?” Her answer was meant to confuse mainstream America and dodge an array of the most vital policy and technical issues facing the United States government and the private sector in the fight against global terrorism. Instead of offering a coherent national policy and technical approach to the cyber encryption issue, Mrs. Fiorina’s strategy for law enforcement to gain access to encrypted communications is “we need to ask them.” This strategy is punctuated by the candidate’s assertion that law enforcement has been using “the wrong algorithms” and the FBI’s fuzzy math is to blame for failing to thwart terrorist acts. Mrs. Fiorina had an opportunity to use her Silicon Valley experience as a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard to bring a comprehensive answer on tech companies’ assistance or lack thereof in cracking encryption to aid the FBI and other agencies. Instead, her answers were problematic, both technically and in the realm of cybersecurity policy.

The former tech executive’s answer regarding the FBI “using the wrong algorithms” as the core reason for failure to thwart the Boston bombers or the recent attacks by the San Bernardino couple is delusional at best. She stumbles further by failing to explain how her notion that government’s fuzzy math in using “the wrong algorithms” was the reason these tragic incidents were not thwarted. Mrs. Fiorina does nothing to challenge the current cyberdefense protocols or to explain how, if elected president, she plans to change these technological tools to combat terror. Her response was dismissive to most Americans viewing the debate. Most Americans do not have a clue on the use of math algorithms in encryption. The American people are smart enough to understand “wrong algorithms” by the government or law enforcement were not the reason past terrorist events were not prevented. CNN’s response to Mrs. Fiorina’s answers on encryption and other security issues, via CNN’s Reality Check: “False, and it’s complicated.”

Mrs. Fiorina is correct in advocating heightened cooperation between the public and private sectors, which if cultivated would streamline communication in tracking terrorists and developing technology to enhance security. Mrs. Fiorina is also correct that the private sector “could be helpful” to the government; could is the “magic word” here as the tech companies recently have not been. Instead, Mrs. Fiorina simply claims that law enforcement agencies are “behind the curve” on technology — again, the government’s fuzzy math in using “the wrong algorithms” takes center stage completely avoiding Mr. Blitzer’s original question on encryption.

This would have been an opportune moment for Mrs. Fiorina to display her cyber technology prowess and to salvage the “wrong algorithm” debacle, and inform the millions debate viewers about cutting-edge technology and algorithms the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies are developing, such as quantum computing technology, to break any encryption and stay ahead of the cyber encryption war games. Mrs. Fiorina could have had in her cache of cyber goodies the fact that Los Alamos National Laboratory is developing quantum cryptography and quantum cyber technology for smart phone use. But, she didn’t. It is unclear whether her private sector years have biased her opinion, that putting aside bureaucratic frustrations we all have with big government, sometimes the government and the military can and have built a better mousetrap. Mrs. Fiorina should know that the U.S. Navy developed Tor, heavily used by Snowden and others to encrypt communications.

Mrs. Fiorina stubbornly insists that simply asking tech companies to cooperate is all that is necessary, which proves either Mrs. Fiorina is fearful of undermining her tech base or is ignorant of FBI Director James Comey’s multiple hearings before Congress and on the “going dark” problem of default encryption. It also proves that Mrs. Fiorina continues to skirt around the crux of Mr. Blitzer’s original question after the government has asked for encryption keys, but default encryption, installed during manufacturing of smartphones, has unique keys which neither the smartphone manufacturers or the tech communications companies even possess. Mrs. Fiorina’s strategy of “ask them” because “I know them” has the same likelihood of success as squeezing blood from a turnip. Even the tech companies and the manufacturers of the devices can’t obtain that information.

Mrs. Fiorina implies that she can obtain encrypted communication from tech companies where Mr. Comey, the CIA, the NSA and others have been unsuccessful and moreover the communications can’t technically be accomplished due to default encryption keys. Mrs. Fiorina seems unaware that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. recently said that default encryption “has hindered 111 investigations.”

Mr. Vance should “ask them” and hope tech companies will come to the rescue. But, that too is impossible, as encryption keys are manufactured unique to each device, something Mrs. Fiorina surely knows.

The encryption debate is Mrs. Fiorina’s worst moment and her answers are unconscionable in the post-Paris attack climate, which he response eerily omitted. Are we to assume Mrs. Fiorina would have blamed the French for using the “wrong algorithms?” Weeks before the presidential debate, European officials were already suggesting the terrorists had used encryption apps. Or, is the encryption issue an incendiary issue for Mrs. Fiorina, and could that explain her refusal to answer Mr. Blitzer’s question?

Mrs. Fiorina has shown her mettle as forceful woman in the GOP. However, that forcefulness, even from a former tech CEO, is not a viable substitute for strong leadership in devising a global cybersecurity strategy. That strategy should include the ability to gain valuable encrypted information that law enforcement desperately needs. Instead of blithely saying “they need to be asked” or “I know Vladimir Putin,” Mrs. Fiorina should consider devoting her time and energy attempting to develop what she considers to be a better algorithm to fight terrorism.

Mattie Lolavar is President of M22 Strategies, Inc. policy and communications group focusing on cybersecurity in Washington, DC.

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