As loathsome as Donald Trump’s policies (rabid prejudices) may appear to be, it would be wrong to sanctify Hilary Clinton by default. The bottom line is that both leading candidates have a terrible track record on privacy.
This should come as no surprise. Anyone who has lived through the inaugurations of Ronald Raegan, George Bush and Bill Clinton will recall that admission to the White House historically invites contradictory, ill-informed and inconsistent views of privacy. I recall we privacy advocates riotously celebrating the dawn of the Clinton administration, only to be thrust into despair after the hundred-day mark (Clipper Chip et al).
Any analysis of where the two leading candidates stand must conclude that Hillary Clinton is spineless and largely vacuous on most privacy issues, while Trump is a shameless pragmatist who has no clue about the legal or moral aspects of the issue.
The starkest difference between the two on privacy emerged earlier this year when Clinton broke cover by publishing a position paper (possibly ghost written by Apple) backing Apple’s fight with the government over encryption. It was, she declared, a “false choice” between privacy and security – identical phrasing to that used by the Apple CEO some weeks earlier.
In an effort to create clear blue water, Trump then emerged a week later, evangelising his supporters to boycott Apple.
Trump’s position fits perfectly with his modus operandi, but Clinton’s is more opaque. Her’s was possibly an eleventh-hour bid to catch up with a highly complex issue and reinstate at least a strand of her Democrat credentials.
Perhaps the most important distinction between the two is that Clinton appears to be building a competent advisory platform for her policies, while Trump has been making policy on the fly and burning his best advisers in the process.
In terms of the global dimension, the most important gap between the two is that Clinton has the experience to understand the dynamics of international negotiations – the complexity of dealing with foreign relations. Trump understands this dimension only through the simple taxonomy of finance rather than diplomacy. How, for example, would Trump understand the complexity of negotiating a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT)?
I’ll come to Trump’s dangerous rhetoric later. In the meantime, it might be useful to remind ourselves of Clinton’s dubious history.
As a Senator, Clinton voted for the Patriot Act when it was initially passed in 2001 and was in favour of its renewal in 2006. On neither occasion did she articulate precisely why she supported the legislation.
She has also unreservedly taken a hard line on NSA leaker Edward Snowden, saying he should be “brought home” to “[face] the music.” We might presume “brought home” is a euphemism for “Extraordinary Rendition”.
Donald Trump exists in the same hemisphere as Clinton, but there are important differences. Yes, he wants to reintroduce the PATRIOT provisions, but that’s surely no different to Clinton supporting them in the first place.
By comparison, she has been vague, at best, about her position on NSA mass surveillance. Or perhaps that interpretation is too charitable? She has never truly criticised the NSA, saying only that it needs to be more transparent about its activities. This is the equivalent of giving a gold pass to the agency to continue its work, subject to a few reporting conditions. At least Obama’s team understood the dynamics of the issue, even if in the end they did almost nothing to remedy it.
The bottom line is that Clinton probably knows next to nothing about security issues in the modern world. When asked for her views earlier this year on the merits of using backdoors, she totally dodged the question and seemed one step away from talking about home perimeter security. In 2015 she supported the US Freedom Act – in all likelihood with no clue about its implications for liberties and little interest in finding out.
This isn’t to say that Clinton has no clue about personal privacy. Far from it. I doubt that any woman in American politics has suffered privacy invasion more than Clinton. Indeed, she has talked about the need for a “zone of privacy”, although this position seems more based on the public/private aspect.
From a privacy perspective, Clinton carries a vast risk. Particularly after the recent email disclosures she may err far too much on the side of openness in a bid to assert that she is not protecting her own scalp.
Donald Trump exists in the same hemisphere as Clinton, but there are important differences. Yes, he wants to reintroduce the PATRIOT provisions, but that’s surely no different to Clinton supporting them in the first place. Trump at least has been up-front in being quoted in favour of erring on the side of security rather than privacy (a point which possibly inspired the Clinton/Apple statement).
In justification of this position, Trump said: “I assume that when I pick up my telephone, people are listening to my conversations anyway.” That’s a remarkably elitist position that demeans the privacy issue.
Trump says he would reinstate some of the PATRIOT provisions and give the benefit of the doubt to security agencies. In that respect he favours bulk metadata collection, but wants a particularly aggressive targeting of potential US enemies, which appear to be just about everyone who isn’t a white American-born citizen.
Unlike Clinton, Trump has come out in favour of specific privacy reforms, particularly with regard to student record privacy (though this was conveniently announced in front of a student meeting).
So in the end this is a choice between two evils. Clinton is incapable of making a decision. Trump is conflicted and adolescent. Privacy advocates perhaps need to look to other candidates to make a difference.