Candidates answer cybersecurity questions at CBS/National Journal debate

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
Font Size:

Cybersecurity concerns took center stage Saturday night at CBS/National Journal’s Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina.

During the foreign policy focused debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all fielded questions dealing with cybersecurity issues, ranging from questions about the threat of intellectual property theft by China to the cyber attack that targeted Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz in 2010.

National Journal’s Major Garrett asked Perry, “According to U.S. officials, China is using cyber-attacks to steal billions of dollars of intellectual property that is critical to this nation’s economic success. Are we, sir, engaged in financial warfare with China?”

“We need to use all of our resources — the private sector working along with our government,” Perry responded. “[S]tanding up the cyber command in 2010 was a good start on that.”

A Defense Department directive established U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) in 2009. CYBERCOM reached full operational capability in October 2010.

“But fighting this cyber war, I would suggest, is one of the great issues that will face the next President of the United States,” said Perry.

Garrett then pivoted his focus to Romney, and asked the former governor how he would “manage China to avoid a 21st Century Cold War.”

Romney declared that China’s interest in trade and in access to U.S. markets meant that China has to “play by the rules.”

“They can’t hack into our computer systems and steal from our government,” said Romney. “They can’t steal from corporations. They can’t take patents and designs, intellectual property, and — and — and — and duplicate them — and duplicate them and counterfeit them and sell them around the world.”

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday to discuss the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). SOPA — a controversial piece of legislation, seen as a continuation of the tensions between Hollywood and Silicon Valley — is the House version of the PROTECT IP bill that has been stalled in the Senate by Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

Supporters of SOPA see the bill as a way to strengthen existing copyright law in order to empower law enforcement to target foreign websites that facilitate copyright infringement. Opponents of the bill argue that the SOPA’s powers are too broad, and would target websites like YouTube and Craigslist.

Santorum alluded to the STUXNET virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz during the debate. STUXNET is a computer virus that targets Siemens and Microsoft computer equipment and was used to both spy on and disable some of the equipment in the nuclear facility.

“There have been computer viruses,” said Santorum. “There have been problems at their facility. I hope that the United States has been involved with that. I hope that we have been doing everything we can covertly to make sure that that program doesn’t — proceed forward.”

The exact origins of STUXNET — while suspected to be from the United States, Israel, or a combination of both — are unknown.

Follow Josh on Twitter