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What Americans should fear in cyberspace
From: Audrey McNeil <audrey () riskbasedsecurity com>
Date: Wed, 22 Jan 2014 16:59:27 -0700
A recent Pew poll found that Americans are more afraid of a cyber attack
than they are of Iranian nuclear weapons, the rise of China or climate
change. Such fears are not only out of proportion to risk; if they take
hold, they could threaten the positive gains of the digital age.
Certainly there are growing threats in the cyber world, and the stakes are
high. But there is also a high level of misinformation and plain old
ignorance driving the fear. Despite the Internet now enabling us to run
down the answers to almost any question, a number of myths have emerged
about online security and what it means for us offline. The result is that
some threats are overblown and overreacted to, while other quite legitimate
ones are ignored.
Every computer user has had to make cyber-security decisions: whether to
trust online vendors with credit card information and how often to change
an email password, to name two. But these decisions are too often based on
The problem is even more acute in business and government. Some 70% of
executives have made a cyber-security decision of some sort for their
firms. Yet MBA programs still aren't routinely teaching cyber security as
part of normal management responsibility, nor do the schools that train
diplomats, lawyers, generals, journalists and others who have to make
important decisions in this regard every day. Whether in the boardroom or
the White House situation room, crucial matters are often handed off to
so-called experts, which is a good way to be taken advantage of — and to
feel more secure than you actually are.
Instead of focusing on what we need to learn, we've instead fed on hype
that fuels fears but doesn't solve problems. For instance, Americans have
repeatedly been told by government leaders and media pundits that cyber
attacks are like weapons of mass destruction and that we are in a sort of
Cold War of cyberspace.
But the zeros and ones of malware are nothing like the physics of nuclear
weapons, nor are the political dynamics they fuel. Moreover, the globalized
network in which the NSA, Chinese hackers, Anonymous, Google, Target and
you and I all play is hardly the kind of bipolar world that spawned the
There is certainly a battle of ideas online, but it's as likely to focus on
which boy Katniss of "The Hunger Games" should choose in the end (Peeta, of
course) as it is to focus on competing political visions. Rather than
looking to the Dr. Strangelove era of the Cold War for inspiration, we'd be
better off studying other historical lessons, focusing on how the
government has effectively approached other new problems areas, from how
the seas were made safe to the success story of the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention in public health.
Despite its central position in both congressional testimony and Hollywood
movies, no person has actually been hurt or killed by an act of cyber
terrorism. Indeed, squirrels have taken down power grids, but hackers never
have. But that is not to say there's no threat. Indeed, our own creation,
the Stuxnet worm, which attacked Iran's nuclear infrastructure,
demonstrated that cyber weapons can cause damage.
But the fiction of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" gets far more attention than the
real, and arguably far greater, impact of the massive campaign of
intellectual property theft emanating from China. As with 9/11, the way
that we react (or overreact) to an attack, terrorist or otherwise, is what
truly determines the impact of it. Understanding the difference between
hackers doing something annoying and doing something with the capacity to
cause serious harm will better direct our fears and resources.
Cyber security has to be seen as an management problem that will never go
away. As long as we use the Internet, there will be cyber risks. The key is
to move away from a mentality of seeking silver bullets and ever-higher
walls and instead to focus on the most important feature of true cyber
security: resilience. In both the real and online worlds, we can't stop or
deter all bad things, but we can plan for and deal with them.
In treating cyber security as a matter only for IT experts, computer users
often neglect the most basic precautions that go a long way toward
protecting both the Internet's users and the network itself. Indeed, one
study found that as much as 94% of attacks could be stopped with basic
"cyber hygiene." Perhaps the best example is that the most popular password
in use today is "123456," with "password" No. 2.
The 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson never could have conceived of the
Internet. But it is what allowed me recently to look up a quote by him that
is perhaps the best guide for our age of cyber insecurity: "Knowledge is
the antidote to fear."
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- What Americans should fear in cyberspace Audrey McNeil (Jan 28)