Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma: Aligning
Security Needs and Removing Vulnerabilities
Myriam Dunn Cavelty
Received: 21 November 2013 / Accepted: 13 April 2014 / Published online: 30 April 2014
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract Current approaches to cyber-security are not working. Rather than
producing more security, we seem to be facing less and less. The reason for this is a
multi-dimensional and multi-faceted security dilemma that extends beyond the state
and its interaction with other states. It will be shown how the focus on the state and
â€˜â€˜itsâ€™â€™ security crowds out consideration for the security of the individual citizen,
with detrimental effects on the security of the whole system. The threat arising from
cyberspace to (national) security is presented as possible disruption to a specific way
of life, one building on information technologies and critical functions of infrastructures, with relatively little consideration for humans directly. This non-focus on
people makes it easier for state actors to militarize cyber-security and (re-)assert
their power in cyberspace, thereby overriding the different security needs of human
beings in that space. Paradoxically, the use of cyberspace as a tool for national
security, both in the dimension of war fighting and the dimension of mass-surveillance, has detrimental effects on the level of cyber-security globally. A solution
out of this dilemma is a cyber-security policy that is decidedly anti-vulnerability and
at the same time based on strong considerations for privacy and data protection.
Such a security would have to be informed by an ethics of the infosphere that is
based on the dignity of information related to human beings.
Keywords Cyber-security Human security Surveillance Information
M. Dunn Cavelty (&)
Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Haldeneggsteig 4, IFW (C 25.1), 8092 Zurich,
e-mail: [email protected]
Sci Eng Ethics (2014) 20:701â€“715
Cyber-threats and the measures necessary to counter them are the security issue of
the hour. In recent years, a number of sophisticated cyber-attacks and intensifying
media attention have combined to give the impression that cyber-incidents are
becoming more frequent, more organised, more costly, and altogether more
dangerous. As a result, cyber-fears have percolated upwards, from the expert level
to executive decision-makers and politicians; and diffused horizontally, advancing
from mainly being an issue of relevance to the US to one that is at the top of the
threat list of more and more countries, resulting in a flurry of government-led and
private-led cyber-security initiatives.1
However, despite concerted efforts and increasing sums of money spent on
various aspects of cyber-security over the years, cyberspace does not seem to
become more secureâ€”rather the opposite, considering the plethora of technical and
governmental reports that use the language of urgency and general doom.
Furthermore, the actions of some states convey an additional level of unease:
Though consolidated numbers are hard to come by, the amount of money spent on
defence-related aspects of cyber security is rising (Brito and Watkins 2011;
Boulanin 2013). Furthermore, an increasing number of states go (semi) public about
opening up â€˜cyber-commandsâ€™, which are military units for (potentially offensive)
cyber war activities.
If we assume that moreâ€”rather than lessâ€”security in and through cyberspace is
one, if not the key goal of cyber-security policies, then the current approach to
cyber-security is not working. Worse, as I will show in this article, actions geared
towards gaining more security are (directly and indirectly) to blame for making both
the virtual but also, by implication, the real world less and not more secure. What
we seem to be facing is a â€˜â€˜security dilemmaâ€™â€™, where efforts by one actor
(traditionally, states) to enhance its security decrease the security of others (Jervis
1978). Because cyber-capabilities cannot easily be divulged by normal intelligence
gathering activities, uncertainty and mistrust are on the rise. Although most states
still predominantly focus on cyber-defence issues, measures taken by some nations
are seen by others as covert signs of aggression by others and will likely fuel more
efforts to master â€˜â€˜cyber-weaponsâ€™â€™ worldwide (Dunn Cavelty 2012; Rueter 2011).
That said, the cyber-security dilemma, like other security dilemmas before it,
extends to much more than just the security of and between states. In its basic form,
cyber-security signifies a multifaceted set of technologies, processes and practices
designed to protect networks, computers, programs and data from attack, damage or
unauthorized access. The related security discourse is about a diverse set of threat
forms, ranging from basic computer viruses to cyber-crime and cyber-espionage
activities, as well as cyber-terror and cyber-war. Each sub-issue is represented and
treated in a distinct way in the political process: Multiple actors employ different
political, private, societal, and corporate notions of security to mobilise (or demobilise) different audiences (Stevens and Betz 2013; Dunn Cavelty 2008). In a less
1 Several governments have released or updated cyber-security or cyber-defense strategies in the last
several years. See http://www.ccdcoe.org/328.html for a good overview.
702 M. Dunn Cavelty
basic form, then, cyber-security is a heterogeneous set of discourses and practices
with multiple, often contradictory effects. Because cyberspace is a realm used and
colonized by many different actors for a variety of things, the security-actions by
states also directly come to bear on human lives in multiple waysâ€”and vice versa.
In this article, I want to propose possible avenues for breaking the cybersecurity-dilemma, especially since the basics of the situation are malleable by
human action: Cyberspace, unlike the air, space, or the sea, is an entirely man-made
realm, at all times shaped by economic and political forces (Deibert et al. 2008). In
the pages that follow, I will first analyse the cyber-security dilemma by focusing on
the way the issue is talked about and approached on the policy level and then by
looking at how the social entities with power (mainly states and big corporations)
shape this discourse and the (physical) information environment by specific
security-related practices. In general, it will be shown how the focus on the state and
â€˜â€˜itsâ€™â€™ security crowds out consideration for the security of the individual citizen. In
other words, the type of security that is currently produced is often not security
relevant to the people. That way, a problem for human security is created (Axworthy
2001), which consists of a sustained feeling of insecurity, insecurities in the form of
(material) vulnerabilities in the infosphere, and exploitation of these insecurities by
several political actors.
The diagnosis of how the dilemma is created in parts one and two will then allow
me to suggest a remedy in the third part. I argue that national security and a form of
security that â€˜â€˜distances itself from the exclusive grip of a state-determined concept
and becomes security relevant to peopleâ€™â€™ (Hoogensen and StuvÃ¸y 2006: 219)
should not be and must not be at loggerheads with each other. In cyber-security in
particular, the two can meet. If we want national security and human security at the
same time, we need a type of security that is based on strong considerations for
privacy and data protection and is decidedly anti-vulnerability. Such a security,
which I outline in the last chapter, should be informed by a human-centric
information ethics of the infosphere (Floridi 1999; Capurro 2006).
What Kind of Security is Cyber-Security?
In this chapter, I will introduce the specificities of the cyber-security relevant
discourse in order to show what kind of security cyber-security is.2 I trace two
elements: the specificities of the â€˜â€˜threatâ€™â€™ and the related â€˜â€˜referent objectâ€™â€™ (that
which is seen in need of protection). In any political process, the definition of
referent objects is not only closely connected to how a danger is viewed, it also is an
unavoidable decision since any danger discourse must be tied to some kind of
endangered entity to become meaningful (Hagmann and Dunn Cavelty 2012). What
is shown in this chapter is that the â€˜â€˜humanâ€™â€™ is presented as a direct threat in the
form of the (evil) hacker, the inadequate software developer or system
2 A focus on discursive expressions should not be understood as a denial that there are â€˜â€˜real worldâ€™â€™
issues at stake. The reality of network incidents is undisputed; however, the analysis goes explicitly
beyond the impacts of â€˜â€˜realâ€™â€™ (objective) threats arising from cyberspace to look at their representation in
the political process.
Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma 703
administrator, but is hardly ever a specific and direct referent object of security. The
threat to (national) security is presented as possible disruption to a specific way of
lifeâ€”one building on information technologies, economic performance and
â€˜â€˜criticalâ€™â€™ functions of infrastructuresâ€”but the direct threat to human security,
especially a threat that undermines acquired values such as anonymity, privacy,
freedom of speech, free access to information, etc. does not figure prominently in
the policy discourse.
An Amorphous Threat and its Representation
In the mid-1990s, a growing concern with information security found a technical
vocabulary, a set of analytical tools, and practices of intervention in a longstanding
mode of thinking about infrastructures as a security problem (Collier and Lakoff
2008). The related threat discourse consists of an outward-looking focus about nondeterrable threats (in the form of malicious human actors) and an inward looking
focus about oneâ€™s own vulnerability.
The outward-looking focus sees an increasing willingness of malicious actors to
exploit weaknesses in an enemyâ€™s defense without hesitation or restraint.
Government reports are full of references to the cyber-aspect elevating the â€˜â€˜oldâ€™â€™
national security trope to a new urgency-level. This happens through a change in the
(interlinked) temporal and the spatial dimension of the threat that make cyber-attack
potentially less risky for the aggressor than other type of attacks: In cyberspace,
anonymous actors are represented by symbols and their actions unfold their effects
anywhere instantaneouslyâ€”catching them is very difficult or even impossible due
to the specificities of the technological environment.
The inward-looking focus on the other hand is about vulnerabilities in (computer)
systems. In computer security, a vulnerability is understood as the confluence of
three elements that in themselves combine the inward and the outward looking
perspective: a system susceptibility or flaw, an attackerâ€™s knowledge of and access
to the flaw, and an attackerâ€™s capability to exploit the flaw (i.e. NIST 2002: 15). The
result of a successful utilization of a vulnerability is a compromise of the systems
information security. Due to the characteristics of digitally stored information, an
intruder can delay, disrupt, corrupt, exploit, destroy, steal, and modify information,
with various implications (Waltz 1998).
A general basic issue for cyber-security is that the information infrastructure that
we use every day for data-transfer was never built with security in mind:
vulnerabilities abound. One of the reasons for the continued existence and constant
new creation of these vulnerabilities is that security is constantly â€˜â€˜underproducedâ€™â€™
in a market dominated by the so-called network effect, under which the benefits of a
product increase when the number of users increases, and the â€˜â€˜winner takes it allâ€™â€™.
Quasi-monopolies and time pressures lead to a focus on fast delivery in commercial
software development. Quality criteria, like security, play only a minor role
(Anderson and Moore 2006). Another reason is that the most powerful actors
providing the most important information services today have an interest in keeping
them insecure: Big Data is considered the key IT trend of the future, and companies
want to use the masses of data that we produce every day to tailor their marketing
704 M. Dunn Cavelty
strategies through personalized advertising and prediction of future consumer
behaviour (Morozov 2013). Therefore, there is no interest in encrypted (and
therefore secure) information exchange. On top of this, the intelligence agencies of
this world have the same interest in data that can be easily grabbed (BoÂ¨hme 2005).
The human in this threat discourse is the weakest link that creates vulnerabilities
i.e. through â€˜â€˜faultyâ€™â€™ software development, or the human is a hapless victim that is
exploited by i.e. the actions of cyber-criminals. Through the economic damage that
is produced that way, the threat is linked back to the economic security and welfare
and often back to national security (Dunn Cavelty and Suter 2012). However,
humans are also the prime threat in the archetype/stereotype of the â€˜â€˜hackerâ€™â€™,
individuals with technical superpowers, able to easily pose a sever threat to
powerful actors with very limited resources (at least in theory) (Conway 2008;
Barnard-Wills and Ashenden 2012).
Vulnerable Critical Objects
The selection of a â€˜â€˜referent objectâ€™â€™ of security is closely interrelated with how the
threat is represented. As mentioned, some objectsâ€”commonly called infrastructuresâ€”and the functions they perform are regarded as â€˜criticalâ€™ by the authorities (in
the sense of â€˜vitalâ€™, â€˜crucialâ€™, â€˜essentialâ€™) because their prolonged unavailability
harbours the potential for major crisis, both political and social (Burgess 2007). In
the mid-1990s, the issue of cyber-security was persuasively interlinked with this
topic of â€˜â€˜critical infrastructuresâ€™â€™ and their necessary protection and in the process
made into a salient national security issue (PCCIP 1997). Because critical
infrastructures combine symbolic and instrumental values, attacking them becomes
integral to a modern logic of destruction (Coward 2009: 408f.) that seeks maximum
One classical goal of (national) security is to throw a â€˜â€˜protective or preservative
measure [â€¦] around a valued subject or objectâ€™â€™ (Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero 2008:
276). Before this security can unfold, the valued subject/object needs to be identified
and also localized in space. In cyber-security linked to critical infrastructure
protection, the identification and designation of the protection-worthy is performed
following the well-established steps of (technical) risk analysis techniques, which
contains both an act of â€˜â€˜namingâ€™â€™ and an act of prioritizing. At the beginning of such
an analysis stands the identification of the assets (including services) that are
critical: Criticality is seen as a measure of the consequences associated with the loss
or degradation of a particular asset or object. Therefore, criticality needs a reference
point: it can only exist in relation to something (pre-)defined as important and
normal/desirable (Brunner et al. 2010).
Cyber-security linked to critical infrastructures creates and is implemented in a
special type of security environment. Whereas the traditional logic of national
security suggests unilateral government action and policy, the policies of cybersecurity are inevitably blurred by liberalization, domestic considerations and other
policy imperatives (Coaffee and Murakami Wood 2006). The management of
infrastructure is in general not (or no longer) the prerogative of government; instead
it is based on the logic of the market. While it remains the essential task of a
Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma 705
government to provide the security of society, it has simultaneously become
impossible for any government to achieve this by itself. What is at stake is not the
body of the state or its borders, â€˜â€˜but the conjoined body of public and private-sector
networksâ€™â€™ (Der Derian and Finkelstein 2008: 102). Therefore, the private sector
becomes instrumental in not only helping with the act of â€˜â€˜identificationâ€™â€™ of critical
objects, but also more directly in assuring the health of networks and the services
provided by them.
Whereas the methodology employed to identify critical assets is very similar in
both the public and private sector, the commonalities end when it comes to the
protection goals. From the public sectorâ€™s perspective, criticality is linked to the loss
of one or more broad national functions. That set of functionsâ€”or protection
principlesâ€”has expanded over time, beginning with national defense and economic
security, to include public health and safety, and then national morale (Kristensen
2008). Through definition of these national functions along the lines of general wellbeing of a nation and its citizens, the link between critical infrastructure protection
and national security is forged. For the state, the goal of protection is the collective
well-being represented as a way of liberal life (Anderson 2010)â€”but, by
implication, also the continued function of the state. The relationship between
state and infrastructure emerges as an alternative to the image of Abraham Bosseâ€™s
Leviathan on the frontispiece of Hobbes famous book: Instead of being made up of
its citizens, the state is regarded as consisting of the things inside its territory that
make life there â€˜goodâ€™; assets that are not directly identified with its citizens, but
material assets that give substance (and significance) to the state through being its
foundation (Dunn Cavelty and Kristensen 2008).
For the private sector, the reference point varies depending on the business
model; in the abstract, however, it is their functioning, or â€˜business continuityâ€™, that
is the ultimate protection goal. The reference object for companies, therefore, is
themselves. Crucial for the continued performance and effectiveness of many of
todayâ€™s companies that operate as traders of information/knowledge with the help of
information/knowledge networks, is protection against loss of information and
routine preservation of knowledge. These techniques sever the human mind/body as
â€˜â€˜â€™incubatorâ€™ of this knowledgeâ€™â€™ from the knowledge itself (Der Derian and
Finkelstein 2008: 102), which is given autonomous value over that which becomes
replaceable as a result of these practices. In this view, humans become reduced to
nodes in the network, needed to ensure the wealth and health of the networks, but
not their own health.
National Security versus Human Security in Cyberspace
In cyber-security as currently understood and practised, human beings are seen as
victims, as weakest link in the system, as direct threatâ€”but not (or only very
indirectly) as beneficiaries of the type of security that states (and companies) want.
On the one hand, the neglect of the human element is a direct consequence of a
focus on technical systems as targets and technology-based countermeasures in
cyber-security. On the other hand, the lack of consideration for â€˜â€˜the humanâ€™â€™ in this
706 M. Dunn Cavelty
field also seems to be an effect of the issue that human security scholarship has
already tackled decades ago: that too much focus on the state and national security
tends to crowd out consideration for the individual citizen, with often detrimental
effects for security overall (cf. Burgess and Owen 2004). I look at both aspects and
their consequences for security below and then turn to the clash between this type of
security and human security.
Technical Systems, Political Consequences
A focus on technical objects is not a bad thing per-se. In fact, the type of security
that emerges directly from the wish to ensure cyber-security is one that seemingly
dodges problematic issues normally associated with security, at least in the first
instance. Ultimately, we are looking at the practice of protecting inanimate things;
the regulation of machines and their performance. Computers, servers, and the
computer-powered infrastructures are non-human objects, which are someoneâ€™s
legitimate property and have a certain (usually undisputed) value for societies.
Cyber-security measures thus imagined have little to no bearing on citizensâ€™ lives
directly. Most importantly, there are no concerns about freedom/security trade-offs,
and no civil liberty issues (Buzan et al. 1998). This security does not depend upon
the invocation of a state of emergency, but is â€˜cleanâ€™ and ultimately, â€˜goodâ€™, since
everybody seems to benefit from an interruption-free performance of vital systems.
However, this view is inevitably problematized, because these machines cannot
be isolated from human life. The image of modern complex critical infrastructures is
one in which it becomes futile to try and separate the human from the technological.
Technology is not simply a tool that makes life livable: rather, technologies become
constitutive of novel forms of â€˜a complex subjectivityâ€™, which is characterized by an
inseparable ensemble of material and human elements (Coward 2009: 414).
Therefore, even if technologies may appear to regulate objectively and apolitically,
there is always a connection to a place, to a space, to a space of protection, to values,
to life. An even closer look at the seemingly apolitical management of a technical
issue with technical means reveals a deeply political nature, because the selection of
referent objects as described above always entails a larger argument about
protection: Endangered entities are judged to have legitimate claims to protection
(while others do not). In other words, this type of security will only provide relief to
a valued referent objectâ€”not necessarily â€˜â€˜the citizenâ€™â€™ or humans more generally.
In cyber-security, as argued above, economic imperatives like profit maximization are decisive. It is not a given, then, that cyber-security is a truly public good,
understood as security for all. Quite the opposite: the type of security that emerges
mainly benefits a few and already powerful entities and has no or even negative
effects for the rest. The type of referent object to be protected and by implication,
the type of life to be saved, is represented by the uninterrupted flow of information
linked to the accumulation of capital and economic growth (Swyngedouw 2007),
which in turn is linked to national security. This is at the heart of the cyber-security
dilemma, in which the dominant form of security is making large parts of the
population arguably less secure. Various security needs are not aligned; and while
they do not always have to be, more awareness of the clash between them is needed.
Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma 707
State Power in Cyberspace
Referent objects also reveal a lot about (hidden) power structures. Contrary to the
beautiful utopia of cyber-libertarians like Barlow (1996), who saw cyberspace as a
serious challenge to traditional state power, the dystopian reality is more like a
â€˜â€˜feudal power structureâ€™â€™ that consolidates power in the hands of the few (Schneier
2012a). Even though the cyber-realm has challenged us to think about power
differently, the most power rests with a few IT companies that act with little
restraint in their own self-interest, often changing social norms by accident or
deliberately, at all times using â€˜â€˜the usersâ€™â€™ to increase their profits. At the same time,
states are asserting their power positions rather forcefully (Schneier 2013), mostly in
the name of security.
Assertion of state power is linked to the possibility (and desirability) to create
borders in cyberspace, which results in a changing topology of cyberspace as we
know it (Mueller et al. 2013). Prominent concepts like â€˜â€˜Cyber-Westphaliaâ€™â€™ tap into
the founding myths of a stable political world order based on state power and invoke
images of a delimited and thus defendable and securable place, newly reordered by
the state as the real guarantor of security (Demchak and Dombrowski 2011). In this
view, held by many government actors, the process of re-establishing state control
in cyberspace is inevitable, because security is the most basic need of human beings
and seeking security will triumph over other, lesser, inferior needs (such as privacy).
Furthermore, the more the issue is presented like a traditional national security
issue, the more natural it seems that the keeper of the peace in cyberspace should be
the military, and the most relevant concepts are cyber-defense, cyber-deterrence,
etc. However, actions by military actors with relation to cyberspace directly fuel the
cyber-security dilemma as we have seen.
Of course, there is a certain appeal to a vision in which the unruly, anarchical and
dangerous side of cyberspace is kept â€˜â€˜outsideâ€™â€™, and relative security can be
established among states. However, this image simplifies complex matters in an
unbeneficial way: Not only does inside-outside generally not apply easily to
cyberspace, state control also often means control over information flows: Indeed,
an increasing number of governments are already controlling what their citizens can
and cannot do on the Internet. Totalitarian governments are embracing a growing
â€˜â€˜cyber-sovereigntyâ€™â€™ movement to further consolidate their power. But democratic
states are doing very similar things: There is more government surveillance, more
government censorship, and more government propaganda than ever before (Deibert
2013; Wagner 2014).
When Notions of Security Clash
State controlled borders in cyberspace would in most cases amount to (at least
partial) governmental control over information flows. Certainly, this does not mean
that all states would start misusing this power, but trust in their benign intent with
regards to civil liberties, most notably privacy, has taken a serious hit last year with
Edward Snowdenâ€™s NSA revelations. Most notably, the NSA scandal has focused
708 M. Dunn Cavelty
attention on the fact that there are direct human security implications arising from
mass surveillance in the name of national security.
In this day and age, more and more user or system specific data is up for grabsâ€”
for anybody who is interested in it, ranging from business, to criminals, and the
intelligence services. While just the extensive data collection by companies and
intelligence agencies is already cause for concern, the consequences of this for
human security becomes fully apparent when the possibilities of its analysis are
taken into account. With a relatively simple network analysis, detailed insight into
the private lives and relationships of each individual can be gained. More
sophisticated methods of calculation are less interested in the present but are geared
towards the prediction of future behaviour (and motivations) of people (cf. McCue
2007). Such techniques are already used for targeted advertising, whereby an
algorithm defines that if Person X buys this or that product, it is very likely that X is
also interested in this or that product. In predictive policing, similar techniques are
used to calculate crime hot spots (Perry et al. 2013). A goal of intelligence services
is to be able to have advance warning of i.e. radicalization or terrorist behaviour,
based on data combination that could look like this: If Person X visit this website
and that website, is in contact with this and that person and has this specific motion
profile, then it is likely that Person X will commit a terrorist attack in the next
From a data protection perspective, these developments are daunting, particularly
because the so-called commercialization of data is not done against the wishes of
the user, but rather because it seems to make our lives so much more efficient and
convenient. Sure, targeted advertising is at best intrusive and does not yet constitute
a human security threat. However, much more unpleasant implications of individual
risk profiles are already apparent today, with people being excluded from certain
services, because aspects of their (private) life does not meet the requirements of a
company (Amoore and de Goede 2005). In the future, it is not unlikely that even
more unpleasant and more directly political relevant implications arise when
democratic rights, such as political resistance or dissidence, are seen as an
opportunity for government intervention in the sense of â€˜â€˜proactive securityâ€™â€™ (i.e. at
Add to these developments a fantasy about a version of cyberspace in which
crime or even attacks by state actors become impossible or at least very hard. Given
that the prime issue for traditional law enforcement methods like punishment or
well-proven military tools like deterrence is the â€˜â€˜attribution problemâ€™â€™ (the difficulty
of clearly identifying those initially responsible for a cyber-attack), and given that
the attribution problem arises from technological protocols that guarantee a great
deal of anonymity for its users, taking away said anonymity, in parts or fully, is
sometimes seen as one of the best solutions for a secure internet of the future (cf.
CSIS 2008: 61ff.). Here, the clash of different types of security becomes directly
visible. From a human and political rights perspective, anonymity is not a threat to
security, it is a crucial part of it. An Internet without the attribution problem, which
would most likely have a negligible effect on security overall, would introduce a
new issue: citizens could be readily identified and punished for their political
activities (Zittrain 2011).
Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma 709
That said, the security-implications of current actions by state entities go even
further. It has been suspected for a while and is now confirmed that the intelligence
services of this world are making cyberspace more insecure directly; in order to be
able to have more access to data, and in order to prepare for future conflict. It has
been revealed that the NSA has bought and exploited so-called zero-day
vulnerabilities in current operating systems and hardware to inject NSA malware
into numerous strategically opportune points of the Internet infrastructure (Greenwald and MacAskill 2013). As soon as military and intelligence agencies became
buyers of so-called zero-day vulnerabilities, prizes have skyrocketed (Miller 2007;
Perlroth and Sanger 2013), with several downsides to this: first, exposing these
vulnerabilities in order to patch them, as was the norm not so long ago, is becoming
less likely. Second, the competition for exclusive possession of such vulnerabilities
might even give programmers incentives to deliberately create and then sell them
(Schneier 2012b). It is unknown which computer systems have been compromisedâ€”but it is known that these backdoors or sleeper programs can be used for
different purposes (surveillance, espionage, disruption, etc.) and activated at any
time. It also has been revealed that the US government spends large sums of money
to crack existing encryption standardsâ€”and apparently has also actively exploited
and contributed to vulnerabilities in widespread encryption systems (Simonite 2013;
Fung 2013; Clarke et al. 2013).
The crux of the matter is that these backdoors reduce the security of the entire
systemâ€”for everyone. The exploitation of vulnerabilities in computer systems by
intelligence agencies and their weakening of encryption standards have the potential
to destroy trust and confidence in cyberspace overall. Also, there is no guarantee
that the backdoor-makers have full control over them and/or can keep them secretâ€”
in other words, they could be identified and exploited by criminal hackers or even
â€˜â€˜terroristsâ€™â€™. Here, state practices not only become a threat for human security:
paradoxically, they also become a threat for themselves.
From Problem to Solution: Human-Centric Information Ethics
This article has identified and discussed implications of cyber(-in)-security for
human-security concerns, with a main focus on both the representation of the issue
as a (security) political problem and the practices of (mainly state) actors based on
such representations. The problem with the current system is that security is underproduced, both from a traditional state-focused national security and also from a
bottom-up, human security perspective. The reason, so I have argued, is a multidimensional and multi-faceted security dilemma, produced by the following
First, cyber-security is increasingly presented in terms of power-struggles, warfighting, and military action. This is not an inevitable or â€˜â€˜naturalâ€™â€™ development;
rather, it is a matter of choice, or at least a matter of (complicated) political
processes that has produced this particular outcome. The result is not more security,
however, but less: states spend more and more money on cyber-defense and likely
also cyber-offense, which is not leading to more, but less security, as evident by the
710 M. Dunn Cavelty
flood of official documents lamenting the security-deficit. Second, the type of cybersecurity that is produced is based on economic maxims, often without consideration
for the particular security-needs of the population. Third, extending a notion of
national security based on border control to cyberspace will almost inevitably have
an impact on civil liberties, especially on the right to privacy and the freedom of
speech. Fourth, cyber-exploitation by intelligence agencies linked to the manipulation of vulnerabilities is directly making cyber-space more insecure. What
becomes exceedingly clear from the developments and lessons of the last decade is
that we cannot have both: a strategically exploitable cyberspace full of vulnerabilitiesâ€”and a secure and resilient cyberspace that all the cyber-security policies
At the heart of this challenge is, as so often when human security is implicated,
the state (cf. Kerr 2007). On the one hand, state practices are emerging as a major
part of the problem, constantly creating more insecurity and in fact also hindering
the removal of known insecurities. At the same time, a secure, safe, and open
cyberspace is not possible without involvement of the state. How, then, can this
dilemma be overcome? Because it is a dilemma extending to more than the state,
solutions are not to be found solely in the cooperation between states (cf. Booth and
Wheeler 2008). Rather, a focus on a common issue of interest for all the
stakeholders that are interested in more security is needed. Such a common ground
is held by vulnerabilities.
If we want a secure and resilient cyberspace, then a strategically exploitable
cyberspace full of vulnerabilities has to be actively worked against. This is a
compromise that some state actors need to make if they want a type of national
security that extends to cyberspace. If such a compromise is not made, then the
quest for more national security will always mean less cyber-security, which will
always mean less national security because of vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures. The reason why vulnerabilities persist and even proliferate has already been
identified above: the current incentive structures in the market are skewed (Dynes
et al. 2008). This is where states are needed to help improve cyber-security through
additional regulation (and through further encouragement of voluntary arrangement
for the increase of cyber-security in the corporate sector). Furthermore, there is no
doubt from a human security perspective that the zero-day exploit â€˜â€˜marketâ€™â€™ needs
to be regulated internationally for security reasons (Kuehn 2013). In addition, prime
human security concerns like the freedom of speech and the right to privacy should
no longer be seen as anti-security, but as pro-security if linked to vulnerabilities:
reducing the amount of data that is unencrypted will substantially reduce cybercrime and cyber-espionage, with benefits for both human-centred and state-centred
In turn, the ethics that should guide our future engagement with cyber-security
have to take into account the special and all-embracing characteristics of
cyberspace. So far, ethical considerations with bearing on cyber-security have
mainly been made from a military perspective, following the tradition to address
new forms of warfare and weapons systems under ethical viewpoints (cf. Rowe
2010; Dipert 2010; Barrett 2013). Cyber-security, as argued in the very beginning, is
far more than this, however: From both a state and a human security perspective,
Breaking the Cyber-Security Dilemma 711
cyberspace has become more than just a technological realm in which we
sometimes interact for social or economic reasons. Cyberspace has become a
fundamental part of life and is constitutive of new, complex subjectivities.
An ethics that fits such a broad understanding is Information Ethics. It constitutes
an expansion of environmental ethics towards a less anthropocentric concept of
agent, which includes non-human (artificial) and non-individual (distributed)
entities and advances a less biologically-centred concept of â€˜â€˜patientâ€™â€™, which
includes not only human life or simply life, but any form of existence. This ethics is
concerned with the question of an â€˜â€˜ethics in the infosphereâ€™â€™ (Floridi 2001) and
beyond that, an â€˜â€˜ethics of the infosphereâ€™â€™ (Capurro 2006). In information ethics, the
lowest possible common set of attributes which characterises something as
intrinsically valuable and an object of respect is its abstract nature as an
informational entity (Floridi 1998). In this view, all informational objects are in
principle worth of ethical consideration. However, to ensure that such an ethics does
not involuntarily place the technical over the social, we must make sure that the
protection of these data is not founded â€˜â€˜on the dignity of the digital but on the
human dimensions they refer toâ€™â€™ (Capurro 2006). The duty of a moral agent is
evaluated in terms of contribution to the growth and welfare of the entire infosphere
(Floridi 1999: 47), but always related to a bodily being in the world. Any process,
action or event that negatively affects the infosphere with relevance to human life
impoverishes it and is an â€˜â€˜instance of evilâ€™â€™ (Floridi and Sanders 1999, 2001).
Vulnerabilities are such an evil.
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