Cyber Security & Centralized Data, What Could Go Wrong?

A global watchdog has sounded the alarm about the growing danger of cyber attacks, on financial markets, warning that firms and regulators around the world need to address the “uneven” response to the threat of online assaults. And that’s just the latest in a series of concerns expressed in our brave new world of global internet connectivity.

Prof. Amir Herzberg, Head of the Networking and Security Area in the Department of Computer Science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, has long expressed many concerns about cyber security, cyber warfare, and basic privacy. On the one hand, we have a very high aggregation of information concentrated in a few behemoth providers such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and Microsoft. This structure appears harmless, as it appears to occur voluntarily under the benign guise of social networking among friends or by virtue of allowing us to search the Internet effortlessly for information in a centralized database. What could be wrong with that?

Well for one thing, as Herzberg argues, this oligopolistic structure makes the flow of information far easier to control and restrict. It is fundamentally antithetical to a free market of ideas. By virtue of this information concentration a small club of companies have massive databases of private information, which provide them with a significant competitive advantage over other smaller companies. The likes of Google or Facebook will become the ultimate re-sellers of everything, and will control huge swaths of our markets, which has profound implications for a healthy competitive free market.

It also has fiscal implications for governments, since these multinational corporations have huge flexibility in terms of where they book their profits, in spite of their nationality. Taxation arbitrage represents another challenge for national governments at a time when fiscal resources for major social problems are said to be scarce. And finally, the powerful advance of these information behemoths will invariably lead to the rise of illegitimate data aggregators via spyware, hacking, and other means, which will lead to a black market in information that will be far less easy to control.

But the analysis goes well beyond security and privacy concerns in relation to the private sector. The revelations by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden shockingly illustrate that cyber security and privacy have become THE existential issue - one that essentially defines our national polities. Even supposedly liberal democracies have increasingly become national security states that routinely override individual privacy rights. Worse yet, these same states are now using the internet not only to spy on citizens around the world (including their own), but they are increasingly engaging in offensive cyber warfare in order to disrupt the information systems of their national rivals.

What is the scale of effort that is actually required to initiate global cyber warfare?

It can happen in a far more discreet way than, say, a test for a nuclear weapon. And it’s all being justified on the grounds of “keeping us safe,” but, as Herzberg notes, we have no protocols to govern cyber warfare. Until we address the multiplicity of concerns raised in this interview, they will continue to pose profound challenges to us as individual citizens and to our democracies.

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