Ignorance is not bliss with cybersecurity

It's time to close the the cyber-awareness gap and improve cybersecurity, according to a Brookings Institute Fellow.

"There's probably no issue that has become more crucial, more rapidly, but is less understood, than cybersecurity."

That statement was gleaned from an interview Oxford University Press had with P.W. Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, cybersecurity expert, and coauthor of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. Singer's point above will not be refuted by too many. It's later in the interview where Singer mentioned something that may rub a few the wrong way. Singer said, "There is an alarming cyber-awareness gap."

Singer came to that conclusion while researching his newly-released book. He likened what is happening today in cyberspace to an invention that disrupted the world during the 17th century. The coming of the printing press changed everything by disseminating knowledge and facilitating mass communication in a way previously unknown. Singer also mentioned that the printing press spread disorder, sparked the Reformation, and fueled a series of epic wars that left eight million dead in Europe.

Kingdoms lost control

Back in the 1600's, the world was governed by crown royalty and confederations. With constant warfare and strife, it became clear the rulers were losing control. This awakening led to the now famous 1648 Peace of Westphalia, and the creation of what Singer calls the modern bureaucratic nation-state, and he said, "Each nation's sovereignty was embodied by a government that monopolized legitimate force within its borders and ensured that the national economy ran smoothly, setting up everything from national currency to taxes."

Singer said today's governments are the evolutionary results of decisions made back then. And like before the Peace of Westphalia, today's governments are having trouble keeping up with a certain disruptive technology and those who employ the technology for nefarious reasons. Singer offered the following examples:

● The rise of transnational threats such as terrorism

● The global financial crisis

● The effects of climate change

● The current lack of cybersecurity

Today's nation states and cybersecurity

Like the printing press, the internet has accomplished immense good. However, Singer suggested, like the printing press, the internet is spreading disorder that nation states are unable to manage. The biggest reason he mentioned is how the internet completely disrupts the power a nation state derives from being in control of the territory within its boundaries. Cyberspace does not fit neatly into that kind of box.

Singer alluded that the Wikileaks case is one of the better examples of what governments can and cannot do. Another example is the Snowden document release. In both cases, the concerned parties were wanted by the U.S. Government, but out of the government's reach. Snowden even participated in a live interview at this year's SXSW conference. Something hard to imagine taking place without the internet.

Singer mentioned something else interesting. Private organizations control most of the cyberspace infrastructure. Singer quoted Former US Director of National Intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell, who said, "98 percent of U.S. Government communications, including classified communications, travel over civilian-owned-and-operated networks and systems."

Like never before, nation-state governments are dependent on private industry for their information infrastructure. The government cannot simply take over, it does not know enough to do so. However, no involvement is just as bad, private entities running the infrastructure are unaware of national and global concerns.

Singer said, "In finding the right balance, the most important strategy is attacking the third problem, the mentality of 'zero knowledge' about the basic issues and responsibilities of cyberspace that we too often see in both the public and the private sectors."

The gap in cyber awareness

During this YouTube video of the Oxford University Press interview, Singer focused on the cyber-awareness gap. He offered several examples supporting his claim that there is a huge lack of awareness on the government side. His first example referred to President Obama. The President is on record as saying cybersecurity issues are the most important national and economic security issues of the 21st Century.

Next, Singer said, "And yet, when he was briefed on cyber activities that the NSA was doing, he got incredibly frustrated, and reportedly at the end of the briefing asked that it be repeated to him, 'This time in English.'"

Singer then spoke of how members of Congress are lacking in cyber awareness. Singer obviously could not pass up the the comment made by Senator Ted Stevens, "It's not a big truck, it's a series of tubes." That was the analogy Stevens used to describe the internet.

Singer also noted that Congress has not passed any major cybersecurity legislation since 2002. Five years before the iPhone was introduced. It would take considerable time to tally up all the innovations made public since then.

The Judicial branch did not escape Singer's attention. The example he mentioned is another one that most will remember. Singer referred to the time when a Supreme Court justice talked about how they just haven't gotten around to email yet. Singer did not mince words. He said, "This is the highest court in the land which will decide some of these crucial issues that loom in everything from intellectual-property business questions, surveillance, to the NSA scandal. And they haven't gotten around to email yet."

Last word

It certainly is interesting to see what massively disruptive technologies can do to societies and governments. I certainly do not think the internet is done changing our lives, especially when we are just getting our feet wet so to speak with the "internet of things." I would like to end with what Singer and Friedman concluded in their book, which was, "We must accept and manage the risks of this world—both online and real—because of all that can be achieved in it. And that really is what everyone needs to know."


Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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