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How important is cybersecurity? Do we overestimate the dangers?

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(Image by CyberHades / Flickr)

As digital technology use increases, so do the negative aspects of its use.

Most of us will have some horror stories to tell about using computers, smart phones and the internet. But this hasn’t stopped us from using technology more and more. Most people would say that their lives would be worse without technology.

This is the case in developed countries, but equally in the developing world, where mobile phones and the internet have revolutionised the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals, resulting in great personal benefits such as employment and business education and healthcare information.

And, while there are certainly also downsides such as hacks, identity theft, populism, cyberbullying, cybercrime and so on, the positives of information and communications technology (ICT) still far outweigh the negatives. Yet in recent years, cybersecurity has achieved a level of political importance that greatly exceeds its actual threat.

Despite the various and ongoing cyber threats the world seems to function quite well and, as my colleague Andrew Odlyzko in his recent paper, 'Cybersecurity is not very important', argues, 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, epidemics, the global financial collapse (2008), 9/11 and so on. What about the massive damage done by guns in America or 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 little political will to address the underlying issues like climate change, inequality and oligarchy, environmental degradation, gun control and so on.

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 around those more serious issues and most politicians shy away from this. Cybersecurity, by comparison, seems to be an easier target.

Historically, the collapse of societies has far more to do with environmental issues than with 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 patterns as technology and there is no reason to believe that this is going to change. We seem to be able to manage the cyber threats in the same way we deal with other social problems, such as crimes like theft and so, there is no overwhelming need to over-emphasise cyber threats.

As Andrew Odlysko puts it, 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 is facing.

So let’s put this into perspective. Let's concentrate on how to address those far more dangerous developments, such as climate change and how to look at ways ICT technology 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 the influence of cybercrime.

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

Nevertheless, the 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 can’t be used to solve 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 it.

The ICT world with all its good and bad aspects 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, which 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 us all.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Communication, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde

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