The Democratic debate Saturday night featured familiar themes: Bernie Sanders hit Hillary Clinton as beholden to Wall Street, Clinton hit Sanders as soft on gun control, Martin O'Malley had a tough time getting a word in edgewise — as this sad exchange with moderator Martha Raddatz demonstrates:
O'MALLEY: Martha, may I — Martha, may I...
RADDATZ: No, no, not yet, Gov. O'Malley.
O'MALLEY: Can I share this quick story?
RADDATZ: No, not yet, Gov. O'Malley.
O'MALLEY: Oh. All right.
The debate was notable for what was not covered: Just as at the most recent Republican debate, the moderators failed to ask a single question about climate change — as though the historic global accord reached in Paris last week never happened.
The questioning, instead, tilted heavily toward national security and the threat of ISIS. It was on this subject that Clinton issued a troubling call to arms for the nation's tech companies and government to join forces against encrypted private communications.
You might imagine that Clinton — of all people — would be sensitive to the liberty interests of hiding personal communications from prying eyes. This is the public servant, after all, who as secretary of state maintained a private email server — with the benefit to Clinton of being able to vet and delete her own communications before they became a permanent part of the public record.
In this context, it was troubling Saturday evening to hear Clinton's response to a question about the power of high technology to ensure privacy. Blasting "encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into," Clinton said, "I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project — something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they're not adversaries, they've got to be partners."
The reaction from America's most famous privacy whistleblower was swift:
Aaaaaaaaand Hillary just terrified everyone with an internet connection. #DemDebate— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) December 20, 2015
Clinton's Big Brotherish proposal was as troubling as it was vague. And it seemed stubbornly resistant to the reality that America's tech firms have shifted to powerful encryption — precisely in the wake of Snowden's revelations — as a way to reassure consumers around the globe that they are not tools of the American surveillance state.
More troubling: Clinton readily admitted she really didn't understand her own proposal: "I don't know enough about the technology, Martha, to be able to say what it is," Clinton added.
Tech companies like Apple have resisted calls to place a "backdoor" in encryption technology that would allow governments to peek at private communications, arguing that such a backdoor could equally be exploited by hackers and render the privacy protections useless.
"Maybe the backdoor is the wrong door, and I understand what Apple and others are saying about that," Clinton said, insisting nonetheless that a door was necessary: "I know that law enforcement needs the tools to keep us safe."
Clinton's remarks earned her the mockery of one of the top disrupters in Silicon Valley, who found her call for a door that's not a backdoor nonsensical: Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and now a top venture capitalist taunted on Twitter, "Also we can create magical ponies who burp ice cream while we're at it."