Biden May Not Be Savvy About Big Tech, but He Understands Cybersecurity

Nobody is chanting “Hey, Ho, Uncle Joe for Crypto!” at a Biden election rally. But the venerable ex-vice president does have things to say about big tech, chiefly in the realm of cybersecurity.

AccessTimeIconMar 3, 2020 at 12:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 1:48 p.m. UTC
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Somehow “Biden for Bitcoin” has not caught on. Nor has “Biden for Blockchain” or the chant, “Hey, Ho, Uncle Joe for Crypto!” And no matter how Joe Biden fares in the rest of this election, it is unlikely he will barnstorm the primaries with speeches that extol the merits of cryptocurrency, the versatility of ethereum or the elegance of decentralized ledgers. 

The world of blockchain, unsurprisingly, is not exactly Joe Biden’s bailiwick. But don’t let his age fool you. He’s not blind to tech, data privacy or the thorny issues of digital misinformation. For instance, he recently called for the revoking of Section 230 (which protects companies like Facebook from liability for material published on its networks), saying Facebook “is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.” Last year, he told the AP breaking up Facebook is “something we should take a really hard look at.” And there’s one digital sphere where he has real bona fides: an enduring concern for cybersecurity. 

This started in the Situation Room. Every morning as Vice President, for eight years, Biden received the Presidential Daily Briefing, which details the chilling threats from around the world. Many of them, like cyberthreats, are invisible to most of us. “Often the public doesn’t see the full extent of what our adversaries are doing in the cyber domain, but I think Biden understands both the significance and scope of this threat,” says Michael Carpenter, who worked in the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense, and is now the managing director for the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. 

Carpenter tells me in an email, “He’s spoken on several occasions about augmenting NATO’s capabilities in the cyber domain, singling this out as one of the key areas in which the Alliance has to adapt quickly to the evolving nature of the threat it faces from its adversaries.” Carpenter knows Biden’s thinking on this issue. The two of them co-authored a dense, 5,000-word essay in Foreign Affairs that stressed the importance of rallying NATO to thwart cyberattacks and corruption from Russia. “Although much of the responsibility for cyberdefense currently rests with individual countries, the interconnectedness of allied infrastructure makes greater coordination imperative,” Biden and Carpenter wrote.

The world of blockchain, unsurprisingly, is not exactly Joe Biden’s bailiwick.

Most of this stuff gets in the weeds, lacks sex appeal and rarely fetches headlines. Plus, Biden has the classic problem of that 30-year business executive with a five-page resume – it’s almost too long and tedious to read. So it’s easy to overlook his cybersecurity wins. “In the Obama-Biden administration, we got China to cut cyber-theft – it's gotten significantly worse under this [Trump] administration,” Biden told a crowd in Iowa in June of 2019. Politifact fact-checked the claim and deemed it “mostly true,” as a study from FireFye, a cybersecurity company, found that after the treaty Biden touts, Chinese cyber-theft did indeed begin to “significantly decline, especially against the U.S,” before rising again under Donald Trump. (Of course, how much of this “Obama-Biden Administration” treaty was driven by Biden, personally, is an open question.) 

Beefing up the nation’s cybersecurity infrastructure – which will only grow more important – demands an investment in education. Biden gets this. In January of 2015, in the wake of the Sony Pictures data hack, Biden announced a $25 million federal grant for cybersecurity education. “We have to move and create the programs, the opportunities, the vehicles for the brightest young Americans to be able to go into this field,” he said at the time. “The demand for cyber professionals is growing 12 times faster than the U.S. job market.” The funds were allocated to historically black universities (HBUs). “We can’t afford to have a gigantic chunk of the population – women and minorities – left out of this opportunity,” he said when touring Norfolk State University to promote the grant. Speaking to undergraduate students, Biden noted that the starting salary for cybersecurity professions is $85,000, and telling them, “These are good middle-class jobs.”

"Why in God's name haven't we hardened the electoral process – provided billions, hundreds of millions of dollars to states to be able to harden their voter rolls, make sure they can't be attacked by cyber security as a consequence of cyber attacks."Joe Biden on "Face the Nation," Feb. 23, 2020

Biden even played a cyberwar game of chicken, of sorts, with Vladimir Putin. In the heat of the 2016 election, when it became clear Russia was meddling in the campaign, Biden appeared on Meet the Press. (As a refresher, whenever VP Biden appeared on Meet the Press, you never knew what you were going to get. Most famously, in 2012, Biden gave an unscripted and unsanctioned – and, frankly, awesome – endorsement of same sex marriage before it became the official policy of the Obama administration. Sometimes Biden freelances. Would he do so again with a brewing cyberwar with Russia?) On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Biden, “Why haven’t we sent a message yet to Putin?” 

“We’re sending a message,” Biden said with the hint of a knowing smirk. “We have the capacity to do it…The message will be sent.” He added that Putin will “know it,” and the “message," clearly implying a cyber counter-attack, will be proportional in response.

“Will the public know it?” Todd asked.

“I hope not,” Biden said. And we probably still don’t.

In June 2018, a group of politicians and influencers, from both the U.S. and foreign countries, created the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. The founding members include the president of Mexico, president of Estonia and Joe Biden. The point is that cybersecurity isn’t just a buzzy issue Biden recently adopted; he has worked on this for years, and his track record is consistent. In February of 2019, at a Munich Security Conference, Biden warned of “cyberattacks, dark money influence operations, and disinformation” from Russia, adding, “Foreign election interference is not only a serious threat to our democratic institutions, I believe it's a threat to our national security.”

How does Biden’s campaign score on cybersecurity hygiene? In June 2019, The Washington Post asked all of the Democratic presidential candidates – then 23 – if they had taken basic cybersecurity measures. Half declined to respond, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The Post singled out Biden’s team for giving a more substantive response. “Biden for President is executing a comprehensive approach to defending, protecting and securing our digital ecosystem,” a campaign spokesperson told the Post. “We have brought on high-quality personnel, require the use of multi-factor authentication on all devices, and are training staff on cybersecurity best practices and tools to ensure the campaign infrastructure remains secure.”

Taking a wider view, this focus on cybersecurity fits neatly in the arc of Biden’s career, and jibes with his beliefs and his character. He’s proud of his nearly 50-year career on foreign policy. Biden might have a reputation as a gaffe-machine, or “Uncle Joe,” or – in this erratic primary – even a bitter old man. Much of that is deserved. Yet underneath all of that is a substantive thinker who likes to master the minutia. When I researched "The Book of Joe" (my biography on Biden), I spoke to former aides who marveled at his behind-the-scenes eagerness to do his homework, read the fine print, and pore through binders of detailed reports. He takes cybersecurity seriously, even if he’s not the blockchain-savvy consensus pick of, well, Consensus

Jeff Wilser is the author of "The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden." @JeffWilser


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