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New Book Cuts through Fog of Hype Cloaking Cyberwar

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I am a cyberwar skeptic. When U.S. officials and defense contractors warn of the looming threat of cyberattacks from China, Iran and terrorist groups, my bullshit detector lights up. These claims remind me too much of the fear-mongering that drove the nuclear arms race when I became a journalist in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, experts whom I trust, such as Dave Farber, a computer scientist and pioneer of the internet, assure me that cyberthreats, while exaggerated by parties with ulterior motives, are all too real.

I’m always on the lookout for sources that can cut through the haze of hype, classification and technical jargon obscuring the issue of cybersecurity. That’s why I welcome the new book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman, scholars at the Brookings Institution, a prominent think tank.

Explaining why they wrote their book, Singer and Friedman state that “no issue has emerged so rapidly in importance as cybersecurity. And yet there is no issue so poorly understood.” Singer and Friedman hope that by educating the public, they will promote a more constructive, inclusive conversation about “how to protect ourselves and our families from a new type of danger.”

Published by Oxford University Press, the book takes the form of a Q&A, with sections exploring “How It All Works,” “Why It Matters” and “What Can We Do?” Singer and Friedman acknowledge that many companies stand to benefit by whipping up fears of cyberattacks. “The rise in cybersecurity as an issue has gone hand in hand with a boom in the number of companies trying to make money from it.”

Between 2001 and 2012, the number of firms lobbying Congress on cybersecurity issues surged from 4 to 1,489. As spending on conventional weapons systems has flattened or declined, defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE have begun aggressively marketing cybersecurity products.

Inevitably, the growth of this “cyber-industrial complex,” Singer and Friedman say, has been accompanied by “hype inflation,” ranging from the “mischaracterization of unsophisticated attacks as war to full-blown falsehoods.” One example of the latter is the claim—propagated in 2009 by 60 Minutes and other media outlets–that cyber-criminals caused power blackouts in Brazil.

But some cyber-threats are genuine, Singer and Friedman insist, and as technology evolves, new threats will undoubtedly emerge. Singer and Friedman point out that cybersecurity efforts will be complicated by several emerging trends, such as “Big Data.” “More data,” Singer and Friedman write, “and better tools to understand it, can yield unprecedented knowledge, but they may also break down human social, legal and ethical boundaries we aren’t yet ready to cross.”

Then there is the “Internet of Things.” The phrase refers to the linkage of an ever-wider range of devices–including not just digital computers, phones, televisions and cameras but also toilets, thermostats, exercise bikes, cars, garage doors, refrigerators and anything in which a chip can be embedded—to the internet.

This trend could “enable cyberattackers to penetrate far deeper into our lives than ever before,” Singer and Friedman warn. “If everything around us makes important decisions based on computerized data, we’ll need to work long and hard to make sure that data is not corrupted.”

I’m a fan of Singer’s previous book, Wired For War, a 2009 report on the military’s growing dependence on drones and other robots. In 2009 I recorded a chat with Singer and brought him to my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, to give a talk. Since then, I have relied on Singer as a source in my writings on drones and the ethics of military research.

He is a thorough, meticulous researcher who writes with the flair of a journalist. A really good journalist. He shows that a scholar can explore a serious, complex issue in a manner that appeals both to experts and to ordinary folk.

He’s the kind of communicator that I want students in my new Science Communication program to emulate. That’s why I’m bringing him to Stevens again to talk about his new book on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, at 4 p.m., in an event that is free and open to the public.

So if you’re interested in cyberwar and cybersecurity—and you should be–check out Singer and Friedman’s book. And of course feel free to come to Hoboken and hear Singer speak on February 12.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 11:29 am 02/4/2014

    “Battlescar Galactica” (redux) is the best and easiest to understand portrayal of the inherent danger of trusting networked communications.
    The human race is infiltrated, abused, slaughtered, and used by incarnate networked machines. Led like sheep to slaughter all the way to the very end. Even the Battle Angel Lucifer (Kara Starbuck, B.A.(A)L.) has a heavy hand in the parade.
    It is a wonderful reflection of how tech. and the media influences the world to date. That “Facebook” maker was the one (I think) who said ‘I don’t know why trust programs like mine, they shouldn’t’.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Von Stupidtz 6:51 am 02/5/2014

    Speaking of cybersecurity, Bell Labs, networked systems reminds me of Professor Tewks. I read his obituary recently. I am gonna miss him for sure.

    Did you know I’ve met him, although rather informally. I think that that would answer a lot of your questions.

    That also probably explains why I found a job near his residence. (I didn’t know about his residence until I read the obituary)

    The following song dedicated in his memory:

    Just wanted to let you know. Delete it if you think its irrelevant.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 11:18 am 02/5/2014

    Ha! I don’t get your references, but enjoyed the video!

    About cyber-security, No longer are we considered entities or identities that need protecting. Cyber crime is turning us into transactions. No longer will we have financial reputations or even identities. We will only be defined by any particular transaction we are involved with at any moment in time. Hmmm. And what will that in-turn lead to next?

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff2 2:26 pm 02/5/2014

    In other words, there is no way to protect your identity and there is no way to protect your data. The only thing you can have influence over is protecting each and every transaction you participate in. Unfortunately, that is burdensome and arduous to the extent that it is not possible to do it with the required persistence.

    The good news. Nobody will care about who you are or what you do. Your anonymity and privacy is safe. You don’t matter, really. The target is your transactions and what can be leveraged from them. It’s all about the transaction, not the data (or your privacy).

    Link to this

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