Cybersecurity got a few mentions in the Jan. 14 Republican debate but the candidates either gave the issue a passing glance or missed the point completely. However, when it did come up, the candidates showed they understand the connection between cybersecurity and national security.
The good news: The first time cyber was mentioned it was brought up without prompting from the moderators.
Fox Business Network moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Ben Carson about how he, as president, would classify the Islamic State group — a militia, a government or something in between. Carson took the opportunity to speak about the future of warfare, including the cyber component.
To open, Carson hammered President Barack Obama on how he talks about modern warfare.
"The fact of the matter is he doesn't realize that we now live in the 21st century and that war is very different than it used to be before," he said. "Not armies massively marching on each other and air forces, but now we have dirty bombs and we have cyberattacks and we have people who will be attacking our electrical grid."
Carson's evocative language framed the issue well but it seemed as though he couldn't get past those images to any concrete proposals on how he would handle it differently.
"Just think about a scenario like that," he said. "They hit us with a cyberattack simultaneously and dirty bombs. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point?"
Carson continued to hit Obama for not being prepared but failed to offer any ideas of his own on how to meet this "existential threat" before the moderators moved on.
Cybersecurity made one more appearance toward the end of the debate, when moderator Neil Cavuto asked Jeb Bush about the issues around encryption, specifically mentioning the FBI's "going dark" concerns — that terrorists and criminals will be able to avoid law enforcement if companies don't build in back-doors to encryption — and Apple CEO Tim Cook's pledge to maintain user privacy in the absence of a warrant.
Bush began by answering a different question on liability with concern to information sharing, an issue that was largely addressed in the recent passage of the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 — better known as the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). That bill establishes a mechanism to facilitate the sharing of threat information between the private sector and the government, with liability protections a central part of the legislation.
Cavuto pushed, asking what a (third) President Bush would do if someone like Cook refused to cooperate.
"You've got to keep asking because this is a hugely important issue," Bush said, getting to the heart of the question. "If you can encrypt messages, [which] ISIS can, over these platforms and we have no ability to have a cooperative…"
"Do you ask or do you order?" Cavuto prodded.
Bush danced around the follow-up, finally saying there needs to be leadership from the Oval Office, where he stopped.
While Bush might not have addressed the encryption question directly, like Carson he understood the ramifications of taking cybersecurity too lightly.
"We need to make sure that we keep the country safe; that is the first priority," he said.
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.