“Cyber Citizenship” Critical in Ensuring National Security

Last week, I argued that due to the size and cost of securing our vast global information networks, the private sector is the frontline of national cyber security. This week, I will discuss what this means for you, the private “cyber-citizen.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that as information technology spreads — and cyber threats such as hacking and viruses proliferate — individual online users are becoming principal actors in guaranteeing national cyber security.

As the number of privately owned, internet capable technologies continues to grow, serious cyber security threats are spreading. Botnets — hacker hijacked computer networks — contribute to denial of service (DOS) attacks, with serious national security ramifications. Meanwhile viruses of all kinds are proliferated by unsecured computers and personal e-mail accounts.

Yet sometimes, the culprit is not a sophisticated code — it is human error. For instance, the shutting down of the European Union’s carbon trading exchange in 2010 (a multi-billion dollar industry) was facilitated by basic “phishing” — where account users willingly reveal information in response to fake emails.

The implications for national security networks are clear. In a world where every internet-capable computer can deliver packages of data for DOS or transfer viruses via email, the mistakes of private cyber citizens can compromise vital national systems or processes.

This realization has led some to discuss the idea of “cyber-citizenship” — a sort of civic responsibility to keep the cyber domain secure. Previously this has focused on copyright issues and ethical behavior online, but increasingly it is being extended to anti-virus measures and cyber security.

One aspect of this is raising awareness about how cyber threats operate and educating citizens how to be secure against them. For instance, internet capable handheld devices have spread rapidly in the last few years — but users do not necessarily behave as cautiously regarding links or emails on such devices as they would on their home computer. Many are calling for increased education to rectify this potential security gap.

Others have gone further, advocating a “public health” model for cyber citizenship that more closely resembles the civic responsibilities we apply in real life. Here, industry leaders such as Microsoft have suggested that just as car owners have their license revoked if they drive dangerously, heavily infected or recklessly insecure computer users could face some kind of “quarantine” from the cyber domain.

This idea is of course a controversial one, but many think it will soon become standard government policy in the face of growing cyber security incidents to make anti-virus software mandatory — if not to go as far as enforcing penalties for reckless online behavior. 

However the debate pans out, we must face up to the implications of a growing private community of cyber-citizens. We computer users can jeopardize national security, and all of us must realize the role our own property could play in a serious cyber security incident.

In short, Uncle Ben’s maxim stands true – with great cyber power for the private citizen may well come great cyber responsibility.

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