Chautauqua Lecturer Discusses Fundamentals Of Cybersecurity

The mass hysteria surrounding the potential threat of cyberterrorism, though not entirely unfounded, is largely a construct of man’s self-induced paranoia.

That was the message that underscored the Tuesday morning lecture held at Chautauqua Institution’s amphitheater during the second day of its third-week theme, “Ethics and Privacy.”

The lecture was given by Peter Singer, senior fellow and director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, who discussed key components contained within his book entitled “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.” The lecture focused on the hype surrounding Americans’ fear of an impending cyberattack, despite the fact that the probability of one actually occurring is infinitesimal.

“There have been more than 31,300 articles in magazines, newspapers and academic journals that have focused on the phenomena of cyberterrorism,” Singer said. “The number of people who have been hurt or killed by an actual incident of cyberterrorism, according to the FBI definition of it, is zero. I joke that cyberterrorism is kind of like the Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week,’ where we obsess about the dangers from sharks even though you are 15,000 times more likely to be hurt or killed in an accident involving your toilet.”

Regardless of these statistics, Singer said the appearance of the word “cyber” in the Pentagon’s annual U.S. military budget has experienced an exponential growth in recent years. In 2012, he said, the word appeared 12 times, as opposed to its 147 occurrences in the 2014 budget. Furthermore, he said a document detailing the Pentagon’s 25-year future plan for the country’s security – known as the Quadrennial Defense Review – contained 46 instances of the word “cyber” within its 82 pages. By contrast, the word “Russia” only appeared once.

“The bottom line in all of this is, for all the hope and promise for the new digital age and cyber age, we also have to admit that ours is also a time of cyber insecurity,” he said.

In order to further instill this message in his audience members, Singer utilized a multitude of images he had obtained from the Internet depicting the varying levels of society in which cybersecurity can play a crucial role – which he narrowed down to private security and general privacy, business and geopolitics.

He said much of the issue stems from the fact that people have a tendency to lump unlike things together simply because they deal with the same medium. He analogized this concept to considering the international activist and hacker group known as Anonymous to be the same as the Islamic terrorist organization Al-Qaeda simply because they both have Internet access and they both begin with the letter “A.”

Singer said this can largely be chalked up to the fact that the majority of the population is often overwhelmed, and sometimes flat-out ignorant, of the complexity of the technology involved in cybersecurity.

“Our inability to just have a good discussion doesn’t just create a distortion of threats, but also a misapplication of resources – from money, to organizational time to mental resources – and response,” he said.

He then referred to his book, which contains six themes to help remedy the confusion and misinformation surrounding cybersecurity and cyberattacks. The six themes are: knowledge matters, encouraging people to educate themselves on the topic; people matter, encouraging concerned individuals to look into the people behind the keyboard rather than the technology itself; incentives matter, looking at the driving forces behind cybersecurity; mentality matters, encouraging people to defend or deter against the potential of a cyberattack; history matters, looking at cyber history and beyond; and prevention against attacks on cybersecurity.

Singer concluded his message with the notion that a sense of security can be obtained in the digital age by practicing what he calls “cyber hygiene.”

“Simply put, if we accept and manage the risks that are involved, we get all of the good things that we can achieve and more; and that is what everyone needs to know,” he said.