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At debate, CNBC should question GOP hopefuls on cybersecurity

On Wednesday, the Republican presidential candidates will take the stage in Boulder, Colo., for CNBC’s “Your Money, Your Vote” debate on the economy. CNBC will “focus on the key issues that matter to all voters — jobs, taxes, the deficit and the health of our national economy.” This debate has the potential to give cybersecurity a chance to shine.

While cybersecurity may not readily come to mind as an economic issue, it should. Cyberattacks impose a variety of direct and indirect costs — from the loss of financial assets, trade secrets and intellectual property to wrecked credit scores after identity theft and damage to a company’s reputation. Putting a dollar amount on cyberattacks’ costs is a difficult proposition because they often go undetected or unreported. Even when an attack is identified, quantifying its costs proves challenging, especially when hackers have stolen intangibles such as intellectual property and trade secrets. Symantec’s 2013 Norton Report on cyber crime estimated the total cost of cyber crime to consumers is $113 billion annually. In 2014, a study conducted by McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated cyber crime costs the global economy — including consumers and the private sector — a staggering $445 billion every year. As the report explained, these costs impact the GDP and ultimately lead to lost jobs.

{mosads}In February, President Obama announced an executive order promoting information sharing regarding cyber threats and said cybersecurity is among the most serious economic challenges we face. Now, Congress is poised to pass legislation that encourages companies to share cyber-threat information with the government. The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which appears likely to pass the Senate, would provide a means for companies to disclose cyber-threat information and corresponding legal protections. The White House supports CISA, and the House passed a similar bill in April.

Given the timeliness, it would make good sense for CNBC to question the GOP candidates about CISA. Among the senators, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) actively opposes the bill on privacy grounds. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) supports the CISA. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) do not appear to have explained their views. Cruz voted to advance the bill last week, while Graham was not present for the vote. Carly Fiorina has advocated for CISA’s passage, as has Jeb Bush, who notably issued a cybersecurity platform in September. Front-runner Donald Trump has yet to declare his position.

Information sharing is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. At this critical time for cybersecurity, we need a 45th president who understands the issues and will take office prepared to put creative solutions in place. Thus far, however, cybersecurity has been lurking at the perimeter of the campaign. The Republicans faced a few cyber questions at their first two debates, largely from a national security and diplomacy perspective. Jim Webb was the only candidate to mention the issue in the first Democratic debate.

The CNBC debate presents an opportunity to highlight cybersecurity and to look at it through an economic lens.  First, the moderators could focus on how the federal government can help the private sector combat cyberattacks. It would be particularly interesting to hear from Trump, Fiorina and Ben Carson, given their collective experience that almost certainly involves efforts to protect consumer, corporate and patient information. They may provide unique insight into how the next president could partner with the private sector to create a culture of cybersecurity awareness. CNBC could further inquire as to how the candidates would deter cyber crime and hold cyber criminals accountable. It would also be interesting to hear the hopefuls’ views on whether cyber hygiene should be voluntary or whether the federal government should impose best practices through regulation.

Next, the moderators could ask whether reform of the federal government is necessary. Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) recently argued Congress is a “weak link” when it comes to cybersecurity and has failed to take the issue seriously. An interesting line of questions would be centered on what the government can do to improve its own cybersecurity to give it credibility when working with the private sector. How do the senators protect sensitive government information in their own offices, and how did the governors manage cybersecurity at the state level? Should cybersecurity operations within the federal government be reorganized, realigned or consolidated? For example, should the next president create a cabinet-level cybersecurity position or even a department of cybersecurity? And of course funding is always an issue. Should more money be allocated to cyber, and how would the candidates ensure funds are spent effectively?

Finally, combating the cyber war requires an able workforce, but there is currently a severe shortage of cybersecurity professionals. The CNBC moderators could pose questions as to whether and how we can recruit students — and particularly women and minorities — to the field, retrain current IT professionals and reform our immigration system to bring highly skilled workers to the United States and keep them here.

The GOP candidates should be eager to demonstrate leadership on cyber. The attack on OPM, recent reports of the State Department’s subpar cybersecurity and the Hillary Clinton private email server controversy provide fertile ground for critiquing the Democrats.

Tonight’s debate could be a turning point for cybersecurity in the campaign, but the moderators at CNBC hold the cards. Hopefully, they will ask the tough questions on this crucial economic issue. 

Norton is a homeland-security and public-safety policy expert. He has served as a senior defense-industry executive and as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Office of Legislative Affairs. He is an industry consultant, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a senior adviser at The Chertoff Group. All views are Norton’s. Follow him on twitter @jamesnorton99 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Rand Paul Ted Cruz

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