Putting Cyber Threats Into Perspective

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As society uses more digital technology, we are increasingly also faced with its problems.

Most of us will have some horror stories to tell about using computers, smartphones and the internet. But this has been no hindrance to our using this technology more and more. I believe that most people would say that their lives would be worse without technology. In developed countries, but equally, in the developing world, mobile phones and the internet have revolutionised the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This has resulted in great personal benefits, involving, for example, employment, business, education (information) and healthcare.

Information and communications technology (ICT) certainly has its downsides, like hacks, identity theft, populism, cyberbullying and cybercrime. The positives, however, still far outweigh the negatives. Yet in recent years, cybersecurity has achieved political importance that greatly exceeds its actual threat.

Despite the various and ongoing cyber threats, the world seems to function quite well. Further, as my colleague Andrew Odlyzko argues in his recent paper Cybersecurity is not very important.


There have been many other security threats that are having a far greater impact on us than all the cyber threats combined. Think of the recent tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and epidemics, the 2008 financial collapse, 9/11 and so on. What about the massive damage done by guns in the United States? How about the hundreds of thousands of car casualties around the world every year? We seem to treat these as acceptable collateral damage. In many of these cases, there is the little political will to address the underlying issues, like climate change, inequality and oligarchy, environmental degradation and gun violence.

Interestingly, many of those disasters do have some predictability and if we wanted to, we could do much more about them. But that would require far more political attention, and most politicians shy away from this. Cybersecurity seems to be an easier target.

If we look at history we see that the collapse of societies has far more to do with those environmental issues than technology. That is not to say that we should ignore cybersecurity, of course not, but looking back on the last few decades cybersecurity has followed the same growth pattern as technology in general. There is no reason to believe that this is going to change. We seem to be able to manage cyber threats in the same way we deal with other social problems, for example, such crimes as theft and robbery. The result is that there is no overwhelming need to over-emphasise cyber threats.

As Andrew puts it, like with all other social imperfections, we will never be able to get absolute cybersecurity. And, yes, there will be technological disasters. But it is unlikely that they will ever be on the scale of all the other disasters that humanity faces.

So let’s put this into perspective: I would argue that we should concentrate on how to address those far more dangerous developments, such as climate change, and how to look at ways ICT can assist humanity in finding solutions for these. Amazingly, it is here that government policies are moving backwards, with relatively fewer funds being made available for innovation, research and development, education, e-health and so on.

There is also an important psychological element in cybercrime. Cyber breaches are widely reported, but we must realise that vote rigging, gerrymandering and vote stacking carried out in far more traditional ways have a much greater impact on election outcomes than cybercrime.

Another example here is that, while many financial databases have been hacked and details of millions of credit cards captured, relatively little damage has been done. Banks have sophisticated ICT systems in place that can detect fraudulent transactions. Yet the financial damage of greedy banks nearly brought economies down in 2008.

Nevertheless, my greatest worry is still the Big Brother effect of cyber-surveillance. It has the potential to further undermine our already weakening democratic structures. This has nothing to do with cybersecurity – in fact, cybersecurity is no solution to this problem.  And, despite the fact that the issue is now being far more seriously investigated by lawmakers and regulators, especially in Europe and Australia, the major issue continues to be the lack of political will to address these issues.

ICT with all its “goods and bads” reflects our messy society, and it is that same society that has led us to where we are now. And in many cases, our progress has been based on muddling on, with the occasional starburst.

While there are certainly many worrying signs in society today, it remains our responsibility not to charge blindly in the same direction as some of our forebears did. This is what led to the collapse of many previous civilisations.  We are now in a far better position to understand what causes those collapses, and we are capable of innovation and diversification to avoid disaster. And we – the people in the ICT industry – are in the privileged position of being able to assist societies by creating the right tools to further prosperity for all.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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