By Dr. James Burch
Associate Professor, School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University
“Since this is a challenge that we can only meet together, I’m announcing that next month we’ll convene a White House summit on cybersecurity and consumer protection. It’s a White House summit where we’re not going to do it at the White House; we’re going to go to Stanford University. And it’s going to bring everybody together — industry, tech companies, law enforcement, consumer and privacy advocates, law professors who are specialists in the field, as well as students — to make sure that we work through these issues in a public, transparent fashion.” – President Barack Obama, Jan. 13, 2015.
The future of cyberspace and cybersecurity has been debated by many theorists and academicians have rendered opinions and studies on the topic. Cyberspace and cybersecurity issues have retaken the center stage of national and homeland security discourse after having taken a sideline to the natural reaction against al-Qaida’s 9/11 attack on the homeland. Despite the renewed sense of purpose and the recognized need to mitigate the ills found in cyberspace, the issue of cybersecurity and the way ahead remain as unclear and obscure since these same theorists and academicians were predicting an “electronic Pearl Harbor” in the 1990s and the events leading up to the hype posed by the Y2K bug.
The Obama administration’s renewed sense of purpose in dealing with cybersecurity issues by calling for the Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University promises to reinvigorate the discussion on a vital topic of national security. That said, this initiative also sounds oddly familiar to similar initiatives from past administrations voicing similar concerns.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrayed a dystopian future where mankind was largely driven by the need for pleasure as a means to distract them from the weightier issues of their everyday lives. Huxley also stated one universal truism in that, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
In terms of cybersecurity, what have we taken for granted? The renewed focus on cyberspace and security issues, while laudable in the sense that it can promise a debate on issues that must be addressed, will ultimately fail if it does not fundamentally address the question: What are we taking for granted in terms of our understanding of cyberspace and cybersecurity? In other words, are we framing the current debate on flawed conceptions of the issue in general? Are our assumptions flawed? Without considering some of these questions, we risk missing the true and weightier questions that we need to address on an issue that is constantly changing in terms of its impact on humanity.
The question before us is a simple one, but harder in terms of envisioning or defining. As Anthony Codevilla and Paul Seabury clearly stated in their book War: Ends and Means: “Strategy is a fancy word for a road map for getting from here to there, from the situation at hand to the situation one wishes to attain.” While this does not mean that we need to quickly create another national strategy on cybersecurity or cyberspace with glossy photos and sweeping language that promises a utopian future, it does mean that we need to fundamentally address the more difficult question first, “What do we ultimately need to attain in terms of cybersecurity?”
In this sense, President Obama’s speech on the future of cyber issues is appropriately framed in that this really is a challenge that we can only meet together. Envisioning the future in a world that will become increasingly dominated by technology and the Digital Age also addresses the type of future that we want to create for subsequent generations. In short, what future are we giving our children and our grandchildren? While blatantly sophomoric, as a parent and grandparent, it also happens to be true.
By envisioning our future, we are forced to recognize where we are. The continued reports on data breaches, identity theft, insufficient cybersecurity protections for health care records, controversies over data retention by the U.S. government and private industry, terrorist recruitment via social media, and the implications of active targeting by foreign entities on U.S. intellectual property are just a few of the many concerns that define the cyberspace issue in the present age.
To date, we have embarked on a journey with no destination. We have not chartered the course to take us to where we want to go. As such, while we must bring national security specialists, policy-makers, private industry, academicians and civil liberty advocates together, we also need to recognize that these issues are the result of failed initiatives and incremental approaches to the overall topic of cyberspace and cybersecurity in general. If this incremental approach to cybersecurity remains unchecked, our generation will be the first to face the brave new world of cyberspace defined by the nefarious drivers that are presently framing the topic. As the noted philosopher, John Stuart Mill appropriately stated, “When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to.”
While the answers to this basic truism can take on a highly technical tone in terms of the development of cybersecurity standards, technologies and processes, the true nature of the answer centers on the ideals and cultural norms that we wish to preserve while advancing into the future that will be defined by technology. How do we preserve privacy in the Digital Age? What type of culture do we wish to establish for ourselves—innocent until proven guilty or questionable until we can verify who you are? What is the role of the government in terms of ensuring security and where does the responsibility for the private sector begin in terms of its obligation to protect its intellectual property?
The answers to these questions represent but a fraction of the answers that are necessary to define our future. The answers to these questions, however, are the ones that begin to define the parameters for how we get from here to there. The sooner we engage in this dialogue, the better off we will be in defining that future for subsequent generations.