The ongoing WikiLeaks dump of emails hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta have given insight to the candid policy positions of the Democratic nominee infamous for siding with the politically popular, and while Podesta himself rarely elaborates on his opinions — mostly sticking to one-sentence replies — a new batch of correspondence released this week suggests the former White House chief of staff will be an advocate for encryption if his camp claims victory in November.
Last May FBI Director James Comey was hitting his stride with a round of congressional testimonies warning lawmakers that moves by Apple and Google to encrypt user communications from end-to-end by default would assist terrorists and criminals in “going dark” online, making it exceedingly more difficult for agencies to surveil them and raising the chances of successful kidnappings or terrorist attacks.
At the same time Apple was mounting support from cryptologists, privacy advocates and fellow companies in the form of a letter to the White House urging President Obama to reject any government proposal mandating backdoors for law enforcement in encryption products.
On May 19 Apple’s vice president of environmental policy and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson (an administrator for the EPA during Obama’s first term) emailed a Washington Post article about the letter to Podesta, offering to brief the month-old Clinton campaign on the issue.
“Hey John,” Jackson wrote. “I know you’ve seen the article below. Huge issue out here as I am sure you know. If you ever want our tech experts to brief your folks, we’d be happy to do it.”
Podesta — a fan of Apple products according to numerous emails — gave an uncharacteristically (compared to his other emails) long reply, describing the issue as going “back to the future” of his time in the White House when then-President Bill Clinton’s administration wrestled with encryption.
“Back to the future,” Podesta replied. “I managed this issue for President Clinton after we got ourselves all tangled in knots over the Clipper Chip. Had many disagreements with Louis Freeh on the topic.”
In 1993 then-FBI Director Louis Freeh tried to promote “key escrow” solutions to access encryption, including a microchip known as a “Clipper Chip” developed by the National Security Agency for use by telecommunications companies to encrypt voice data in their phone products. The chip essentially acted as a master key for accessing encryption that would be held by the government or a third party, and it’s proposal birthed the first “Crypto Wars.”
While Congress debated an eventual update to wiretapping laws in the early 1990s, Freeh and others in law enforcement argued “the extra effort and expense will be wasted if the only thing the wiretappers can hear is the hissy white noise of encrypted phone conversations and faxes,” The New York Times reported in June 1994.
“If cryptography is not controlled, wiretapping could be rendered obsolete,” the article reads. “[Freeh] has told Congress that preserving the ability to intercept communications legally, in the face of these technological advances, is ‘the No. 1 law enforcement, public safety and national security issue facing us today.'”
Podesta’s reply to Jackson implies he was an advocate for encryption during the debates in the Clinton White House, which eventually sided against the chip and removed export barriers on encryption products (another debate that was revived last year).
Campaign staff worked against multiple terror attacks through the end of the year and into 2016 to ensure Clinton wasn’t perceived as pro-backdoor, despite the former secretary of state’s own verbal blunders and scarce knowledge on the issue.
By November Clinton described the issue publicly as a “classic hard choice” between privacy and security following ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris, and staffers began to worry the “Internet Freedom” agenda she championed while secretary of state in the midst of the Arab Spring, when whole countries including Egypt shut down internet access, could be used against her for promoting tools like encryption, which investigators in Paris said attackers used.
“Man this is tough,” Sara Solow, a domestic policy advisor for Clinton, wrote on an email chain discussing a press response. “Is there evidence that bad guys — not just dissidents but terrorists or whatever — have also benefitted from the technologies supported by the internet freedom agenda?”
“The bad guys could already get crypto — we helped the good guys get it,” Ben Scott, who advised Clinton on tech issues while she was secretary of state, wrote in suggested talking points.
Debate heated up last December following the San Bernardino shootings and the FBI lawsuit brought against Apple to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters. After the third Democratic presidential primary debate, staffers went back and forth on how to spin conflicting comments Clinton made that could be construed as supporting some kind of backdoor.
“She basically said no mandatory back doors last night (‘I would not want to go to that point’). In the next paragraph she then said some not-so-great stuff — about there having to be ‘some way’ to ‘break into’ encrypted content– but then she again said ‘a backdoor may be the wrong door,'” Solow wrote, “…she’s certainly NOT calling for the backdoor now — although she does then appear to believe there is ‘some way’ to do the impossible.”
Teddy Goff, who manages Clinton’s online presence and served as the digital director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, added Podesta to the chain, who he described as “a fellow crypto hobbyist” (who “may be something more than a hobbyist”).
Goff said Podesta “heard nice things from friends of ours in [Silicon Valley], which is rare!” following the debate and suggested the campaign could safely say Clinton “pledged not to mandate a backdoor as president,” but warned against her use of some language making it clear she didn’t fully grasp the issue.
“[S]peaking of not understanding the technology,” Goff wrote, “there is a critical technical point which our current language around encryption makes plain she isn’t aware of. [O]pen-source unencrypted messaging technologies are in the public domain. there is literally no way to put that genie back in the bottle. [S]o we can try to compel a whatsapp to unencrypt, but that may only have the effect of pushing terrorists onto emergent encrypted platforms.”
Solow suggested the campaign “tell tech off the record” Clinton was referring to hacks of specific devices, not backdoors into encryption products broadly.
“[I]n terms of wanting a way to break in – couldn’t we tell tech 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),” Solow wrote. “Or that she had in mind really super code breaking by the NSA. But not the backdoor per se?”
In early 2016 California Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren, an avid advocate for digital privacy who’s repeatedly sought to block surveillance technology via legislation, wrote to Podesta with “hope that our candidate does not leap on the side of the FBI on the encryption ruling,” and asked to speak with Clinton if she was leaning in favor of law enforcement.
As the legal battle between the Department of Justice and Apple ensued, Lofgren followed up in February with a statement she wrote for Clinton calling on the DOJ to abandon the lawsuit.
Podesta replied that while the campaign would likely “stay out” of the issue, he assured Lofgren Clinton wouldn’t “embrace” the FBI’s position.
“I think we are inclined to stay out of this and push it back to companies and [the United States Government] to dialogue and resolve,” he wrote. “Won’t embrace FBI.”