Hillary Clinton’s advisers recognized that her policy position on encryption was problematic, with one writing that it was tantamount to insisting that there was “‘some way’ to do the impossible.”
Instead, according to campaign emails released by Wikileaks, they suggested that the campaign signal its willingness to use “malware” or “super code breaking by the NSA” to get around encryption.
In the wake of the Paris attacks in November, Clinton called for “Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary,” and called for “our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy.”
When asked during a debate in December whether she would legally compel companies to build a backdoor into their products to give law enforcement access to unencrypted communications, Clinton responded “I would not want to go to that point.”
But she then called for a “Manhattan-like project” to develop secure communication while allowing the government to read messages.
Cryptography experts overwhelmingly agree that backdoors inevitably undermine the security of strong encryption, making the two essentially incompatible.
The day after the debate, Sara Solow, domestic policy adviser for the Clinton campaign, called Clinton’s position “impossible” in an email with Teddy Goff, the campaign’s chief digital strategist. “[S]he’s certainly NOT calling for the backdoor now,” Solow said, “although she does then appear to believe there is ‘some way’ to do the impossible.”
Goff had written that he thought Clinton’s reply was a “solid B/B+,” and suggested that she “thread the needle” and “quickly pivot from encryption to the broader issue of working with tech companies to detect and stop these people.” Goff also said that the Manhattan project analogy was something which Clinton should “truly, truly should not make ever again — can we work on pressing that point somehow?”
Solow’s suggestion was that the campaign quietly signal to Silicon Valley — a major source of donations for the campaign — that Clinton would support government hacking to circumvent encryption.
“Couldn’t we tell tech [companies] off the record that she had in mind the malware/key strokes idea (insert malware into a device that you know is a target, to capture keystrokes before they are encrypted). Or that she had in mind really super code breaking by the NSA. But not the backdoor per se?”
The FBI has in fact used targeted hacking to get around encryption tools, quietly and effectively. In 2007, for example, FBI agents caught a teenager who was sending online bomb threats to a high school in Lacey, Washington, by sending him a link that installed malware on his computer.
The Clinton campaign had previously struggled to answer inquiries about the candidate’s position on encryption. “This is going to be a challenge,” Clinton foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan said in a November exchange about how to respond to a press inquiry. “I think we should give a comment on the anonymizing tools and punt on backdoors.”
During Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the State Department aggressively funded the development of encryption and anonymous web browsing tools.
In Solow’s email, she asked whether there was any actual evidence of terrorists using the technologies the State Department funded. “Is there evidence,” asked Solow, “that bad guys — not just dissidents but terrorists or whatever — have also benefitted from the technologies supported by the [State Department’s] Internet freedom agenda?”
In response to terror attacks, Clinton has repeatedly called for an “intelligence surge,” but has provided little clarification about what she means.