How Trump’s cybersecurity quest could reshape the internet

Following the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the induction of a new administration, many concerns ranging from foreign policy to national debt still weigh heavily on Americans. 

It is within this ever-growing list of concerns that the topic of online privacy seems to get shuffled into and often forgotten about. Mainstream discussions about cybersecurity are almost always reactive to instances of privacy infringement, and thus, ineffective — much like the hotly-debated Russian hacking of the DNC prior to the U.S. election.

A question of trust

While many Americans, including President Trump, deny that Russia had any influence whatsoever in the U.S. election, the C.I.A. believes that the threat is still probable. Trump’s denial of Russia’s technological interference could possibly stem from the fact that the 45th President of the U.S. is a recognised resistor of technology; as someone who is critical of modern devices and seldom sends email. While he’s shown not be tech-savvy — despite his rampant use of Twitter — he continues to voice his opinions on controversial issues involving privacy and technology. 

During the encryption debate between Apple and the FBI in early 2016, Trump sided with the FBI and called for a boycott of all Apple products since they would not comply with unprecedented government demands to create a backdoor into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

His unquestioned willingness to weaken the security of such a popular device worried many Americans, and brought one important question into the conversation: with someone so critical of modern technology, and so inclined to table the security of citizens, how can we be sure that our right to online privacy will be protected by Trump and his new administration?

We can’t.   But we can protect ourselves. With security tools such as the TOR browser or a logless VPN provider, we can defend our online privacy — but it will not come effortlessly.

What's next?

Trump has not explicitly stated what his feelings are on the issue of online privacy and cybersecurity — other than the plans he first proposed while campaigning, but his appointments of cabinet members and independent agencies are interesting at the very least. The new President has named Thomas Bossert as Homeland Security Advisor, and put him on the same governmental level as National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. 

Bossert will have an independent role (not subordinate to Flynn) in the White House, with the primary purpose of watching over domestic and cybersecurity concerns. Daniel Castro, Vice President of Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, stated in an interview that “Trump announced that in his first 100 days in office he will call on the Department of Defense and Joint Chiefs to develop a comprehensive plan to defend critical infrastructure against cyberattacks.” 

For an incoming President with such a loose understanding of digital technology, many are pleased to see that the 70-year-old has even recognized the pressing cybersecurity issues. However, hordes of critics worry that the separation of cybersecurity and national security could allow for discrepancies and competing agendas within the White House.

Devil's in the details

In contrast to the rank and status change of the Homeland Security Advisor, other cabinet picks have caused some anxiety. His selection to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, has already called for a return to bulk collection of calling records. This process had been halted last year thanks to the passing of the USA Freedom Act following the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden. If policies should revert to bulk collection, just about all of your personal information will be readily available to the government.

Most recently, the promotion of former NYC Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to head an unnamed cybersecurity advisory group in an unnamed position has industry pros scratching their heads. While Giuliani does have ties to a security consultancy business, Giuliani Partners, his security expertise does not lay in cyber. In fact, the website for Giuliani Partners is riddled with security vulnerabilities. 

Among Trump’s many critics is Timothy Edgar, the academic director of law and policy for Brown University's Cybersecurity (EM) program. In recent essays, Edgar noted that President Trump would actually have the power to potentially — and legally — shut down the internet in the U.S. as a response to a national security crisis, similar to the way that Turkey has been as of recent.

Where to from here?

While this may come in handy during a time of emergency, could it even be considered ethical for the government to have this kind of power and control over the internet?

The surveillance situation in Turkey has been ongoing for years under authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and while some shutdown has been as a result of a government coup, other instances arise from simple scandal. Back in 2014, SoundCloud was blocked for two weeks after a recorded conversation between then-PM Erdogan was leaked to the audio platform. And as recently as October, millions in Turkey’s southeast experienced “a full internet shutdown,” reportedly preventing the arrival of medical supplies to patients and crippling infrastructure. 

Fortunately, those in Turkey experiencing regular blocks to Google, Wikipedia, and social media have been able to make use of encryption tools like VPN to bypass internet censorship.

With President Trump’s muddled thoughts on cybersecurity, he seems to take one step forward, only to take another step back, making it difficult for anyone to pinpoint his exact feelings on privacy and security. His goal, it seems, is to prioritize U.S. national security, even if that means it is at the expense of the people who put him in office. 

Read part two of this series: 'Threats to Online Privacy: What a Trump Administration May Do to Cyberspace'

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.