• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


With Only Days to Go, What Say You?

About cybersecurity in the political moment.

January 15, 2017

With only days to go before the inauguration, the United States government has a hodge-podge of confusing and potentially destabilizing messes on its hands. From ethical questions about President-elect Trump's unwillingness to divest from his business – including the expected politicization of the government ethics office that serves not only to put government ethics on the defensive but distract from the fact that the transition team is gliding its billionaire appointments over this hump in the process – to the BuzzFeed release of the unsubstantiated report about Trump’s predilections in Moscow hotel rooms – and a debate about journalistic proprieties in the midst of permutations of the term “Fake News” that propagate daily – it is a genuine challenge to keep up or make sense of where we are as a country, where we are going, and why.

I will, therefore, focus my comments on only one area in this post: cybersecurity.

Using his well-worn tactics of denial, diversion, and then unexplained reversal when he figures out how to spin the issue his way, Trump’s positions on the Russian cybersecurity attacks intentionally designed to influence the election of which he was the beneficiary misses an opportunity to initiate much needed diplomatic attention on the questions of cyber security globally.  In the immediate, the key question is simple: Did Russia inform Trump of their hack during the campaign? (Investigators, connect the Manafort dots …) Just about everything that people find troubling about the president-elect can be boiled down to this one point.  If he did, Congressional leaders of both parties should throw the book at him with an indictment.  If he did not, there are still important challenges ahead of us. That challenge has been made problematic with Trump’s decisions to bring the political hack Giuliani on board to head cybersecurity … whatever that means in a federal government system in which there are no fewer than 19 agencies that already touch this issue. Images of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria rise in my mind’s eye. Meanwhile, national security hangs in the balance, along with all the positive economic, social and cultural benefits that the internet has brought to people and nations around the world.  

Concerned that cybersecurity will become unrecognizably politicized under a Trump Administration, citizens, in concert with elected officials, should prioritize this issue for decisive attention.  Cybersecurity is an issue deserving of deep, substantive attention both at home and abroad.  Russian hacks are shocking examples of an undeclared cyber war among nation states that has been on-going for at least a decade, if not longer.   Public ignorance of such events speaks to the lack of education on these critical issues inclusive of information literacy that study after study shows is a dire need for all users of the internet.  For example, the failure to recognize the economic, social and political significance of cybersecurity and responsible use of information technology resources broadens the scope and raises the stakes of what those hacks or “fake news” can influence.  Nation-state attacks complement identity theft and other internet organized crimes that have undermine a world-historical innovation and its contributions of technology that makes more communications, commerce and content more effective, efficient and expansive. Without diplomacy among nations to address these activities, control overwhelms these benefits.  Control becomes the nefarious underbelly of that which otherwise has the potential to revive economies, expedite communications, and bolster creative forces around the world

What can people do? Internet company officers of the Big Five (Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook) who love the limelight should use their personalities to exercise real leadership. Fully apprised of the issues surrounding cyber security, they should insist that the new president recognize cyber security as a priority at every level of his administration involving foreign affairs, national defense as well as the viability of our utilities and infrastructure. Precisely because these leaders garner respect across a divided political spectrum, they have a responsibility to American society to be sure that politics do not undermine the vital work that must be done to address our vulnerabilities.  And not to allow this very serious matter to become a personally aggrandizing circus under Giuliani. 

Bipartisan members of Congress should unite over these issues. Sensitive because he wants to represent the election as a mandate – or obfuscate the fact that he knew in advance about the Russian attack -- Trump politicizes one of the least political issues before us today. Cybersecurity is not a Democratic or Republican concern.  It is a key concern of the United States. In no small part because the United States created the internet and bequeathed it to international society, the United States has the moral authority to maintain its stability. As the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission begin efforts to rework the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, or "ICANN," the current body that manages internet traffic, the United States must come clean about its own cybersecurity activities as the first step towards sound international governance.  I am not suggesting that the United States abdicate its management; it must be worthy of that responsibility, however, in order to instill trust among partners. I am advocating for it to be responsive to multi-stakeholder constituents.  

Furthermore, our country should be on the front diplomatic lines to address cybersecurity.  Technology will never fix the problems associated with cyber security. Diplomacy can. Diplomacy in this area should be elevated from the lower levels of handshakes between presidents -- witness Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping agreeing to tone down nation-state attacks -- to treaty negotiations for functions such as nuclear weapons. Non-Government Organizations, or "NGOs," should form over this issue and work in concert with existing ones that address global economic, health or national disasters.  Such organizations in and of themselves will not be the answer, nor should they be the leaders per se of global internet governance, but with a stable internet as a central organizing principle they can offer governmental leaders guidance. 

The education community has a distinctive role to play. "Code" is a language that should not be restricted to traditional college-age students but taught early in K-12 settings. That said, the technical aspects of cybersecurity will always be reserved for specialists. Higher education should continue the excellent work it has done to produce world-class computer scientists and engineers that implement security controls in every layer and dimension of the internet. While the emphasis in the last half century has been on innovation and business, educators should routinely now integrate legal, policy and ethical training into that curriculum, especially for the best and brightest of our prodigious graduate students and scholars. It is beneath the standards of American higher education to send our prized graduates out into the world with so much technical power without a proper grounding in how they might make choices regarding the use of their prowess. And I have long believed that higher education provides a good platform for international debate on internet governance.

Comprehensive information literacy must become an integral part of our education system. Combining digital and user interfaces, information literacy goes to our country's traditional goals of critical thinking and the development of citizenship. It involves libraries as well as schools and should strive to touch virtually every aspect of our youth's use of the internet, from home work to research to social networking. Partisans of highly politicized programs such as Common Core or No Child Left Behind can and should unite around teaching our children appropriate use of the very tools that will largely define their identities, shape the developmental process of youth and ultimately result in employment in an information economy. If I could change one thing about this election it would be to require the candidates to talk about education, the economy and culture of the United States through the lens of the internet.  That is not to say that I think that the internet is everything. It is not. But ignoring its influence on the totality of our lives contributes to everything from retrograde economic policies to suspicious election results. I offer it as an exercise to raise awareness.

President-Elect Trump risks more than his credibility to deny or pervert the realities of cyber security; his highly personalized eye on this subject recklessly endangers our country. The failure to recognize the present danger threats or to take advantage of the opportunities that addressing cybersecurity offers could become the ground upon which the United States heals and helps itself. Or to future historians it can become a critical moment lost.  Readers of this blog are already a step ahead in recognizing the importance of cybersecurity. And no matter what our political differences, we agree that education and critical thinking remain at the center of our efforts as a nation to maintain that which has long distinguished the United States. It is now imperative that we not allow this exceptionally politicized environment to take us off that path. Let’s unite over our common goals to stay on course of fact-based, intelligent, critical inquiry into that which ails us as well as the policy initiatives that in the long run will matter integrity the most. It is not just a technology that is at stake but the very integrity of the historical American experiment. 


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