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 13 August 2015

Cyber Security Today

Bill Durodie

When the first modern census was introduced in the UK in 1801 one of the criticisms raised against it in Parliament was that it would; “impair the liberty of the individual” and act as a “most effectual engine of rapacity and repression”.

Le plus ça change? Well, yes and no. Debates over cyber security today seem to swing wildly between an exaggerated techno-optimism (that the internet will solve all of the world’s problems) through to a fatalistic techno-pessimism (that the internet is a magnet for criminals).

Maybe we could all do with calming down a little and recognise that everything is dual-use. Take language – is that dangerous because it can be turned against us, or a wonderful way of connecting people? Surely, the solution is not to legislate and regulate (though these may be necessary), but to engage and inspire.

Incursions into our privacy today are consequences of cultural change – not their cause. Industry is no more responsible for this than government or the media. We have become confused about privacy, acting outraged at revelations of snooping while displaying our entire lives on Facebook.

Privacy is neither good nor bad. It is simply necessary. It is essential for individuals to develop and flourish and, accordingly, for a healthy public sphere too. It affords us a space to remove our public mask (and even put on a new one), as well as being vital for reflection and establishing trust.

But while this is affirmed rhetorically, it appears to be consistently under attack in reality. The challenge emanates from a powerful cultural script that consistently devalues and pathologises the private sphere – identifying it as a site for abuse, exploitation and violence.

In consequence we demand transparency and openness, viewing private exchanges as suspect. The focus on technology in related discussions misses the real source of this demand for intrusion, which is social and cultural – based on a mistrust of each other and ourselves.

Far from revealing much, the so-called Snowden revelations simply served to confirm people’s prejudices as to the way the world is. And even governments today have given up on attempting to understand crime or terrorism and focus more on preventing it.

It is ironic that the ‘land of the free’ now appears to want to repackage itself as the ‘land of the secure’ and, at the same time, export its insecurities globally. This is driven as much by its internal loss of direction as by any external threats.

We should not lose sight of the fact that real intelligence – whether technical or cultural – combines the gathering of information with the interpretation of it according to particular models and frameworks.

A simple phrase, such as; “I’m off to Istanbul”, can have a wide variety of meanings according to tone and context. It could mean; “I’m going on holiday”, or “I’m leaving you”. It could be the name of a restaurant. It could mean; “That’s where the business is”, or “I’m joining an extremist group”. It could even be code, or an error.

It is rarely shock that brings down individuals and institutions, but rather drift – slow, steady cultural transformation that occurs right under our nose and that eventually leads to our noticing how much the world has changed. It is time we started monitoring this in relation to these issues.

Bill Durodie is Chair of International Relations, Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, at University of Bath. He appeared on the panel discussion for BT’s recent Tower Talk on Cyber Security on July 1 2015.