Ben Franklin would say our online liberty is the same as liberty itself

Ben Franklin would say our online liberty is the same as liberty itself

Summary: It's a fine line to walk. Rather than great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, we're stuck with the 112th U.S. Congress.

TOPICS: Security, CXO

For the last few weeks, I've been deeply involved in a cybersecurity project that I can't discuss, for a client I can't disclose. The fact that I can't discuss the nature of the work isn't relevant here. I'm simply mentioning the project to give you context.

I've been deeply involved in issues of America's cyberdefense for years. The difference between that work, and what I'm working on this month, is that my current project has me thinking deeply about the totality of the cyberthreat, and what attacks and breaches mean to America as a whole.

So let me cut to the chase. No matter what anyone tells you, no matter what any well-meaning blogger or so-called security "expert" might post, the cyberthreat is real. Very, very real.

The United States is a society of about 320 million people.

To most of the rest of the world, we are 320 million very wealthy people. Yes, I am all too aware that many Americans are struggling financially, and many of our fellow citizens have tough lives.

But even though some of us have it very, very tough, there are people in other nations who have it, comparably, far worse. There are those in India who walk barefoot in toxic goo to strip rusting, rotting ships, and do it for less than a dollar a day. There are people in China who live in one room huts with dirt floors, no running water, or toilets, who have no hope of anything ever changing.

Don't get sidetracked by the issue of who suffers more. The point to ponder is there are billions of suffering people living in foreign nations. China and India have more than 2.5 billion people, most of whom are far poorer than even our poorest Americans.

Some people in these countries, and in the former Soviet republics, and in North Korea, and in many Arab states -- and often whatever can be thought of as their governments -- look at us in the United States with disgust, envy, and anger.

They want what we have.

They dislike us for many reasons. They even feel they have some justification for their ire. We do tend to muck about in many countries, with our particularly American sense of right and might.

As recently as the early 1990s, that dislike and desire was kept at a distance. Angry, envious non-Americans were across the ocean, separated by borders and distance and time. But no longer. Most of them are now separated from each of us by a few milliseconds, a few IP address hops.

The point is, there is a huge motivation among an almost incomprehensibly large body of people to both try to steal from us, and disrupt our way of life.

It's not just individuals, of course. It's also enemy nations like North Korea, international crime syndicates, and even hacktivist groups. All of these groups, entities, and people know that not only can we be reached, not only can we potentially be hurt, but there's also a lot of money to be made from stealing from us.

And don't tell me you're not wealthy enough or important enough to be a target. Almost any of us with a bank account or a credit card or medical records -- or even in-game loot -- is juicy enough to be a target.

Steal a thousand dollars from almost any of us, and it'd hurt. A lot. But for those souls who live on a buck a day, stealing a thousand dollars is like winning a three-year windfall. There are many organized "companies" in countries like China, India, Belarus, and Russia that pitch hacking as an opportunity to their impoverished workers. Hundreds of workers occupy "hack-centers," where they are trained to hack, phish, and steal from Americans.

Defense against this isn't as easy as closing our borders. It's not like we can simply check air travelers as they arrive off an international flight. In the digital world, there are millions, even billions of potential incoming attack vectors, and thousands of ways those attacks can be executed.

Somehow, we have to defend against them all, or we'll be hit.

We are attacked every day. Our federal agencies are under constant, unyielding, unrelenting cyberattack. Our citizens are vulnerable to phishing attacks, Web page exploits, and identity theft. Our corporations are vulnerable to intellectual property theft and theft of customer information.

Our companies might spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing cutting-edge technologies and products, only to find those designs stolen, knocked off, and sold, competing at a fraction of the price.

Even worse, many of those designs, whether for drugs or bulletproof vests, are being sold as if they came from the original manufacturer, but are of vastly substandard quality. Not only are the American companies losing, American citizens are being put at physical risk by trusting counterfeit gear and medications as if they were the real thing.

A former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Europe once tried to explain to me the perils of international cyberthreats. He seemed more afraid of the digital battlefield than he did of Russia's tanks. I once had a conversation with a senior three-letter-agency official, who explained that while we rely entirely on the Internet, we're terribly, terribly vulnerable. He told me he was scared.

Our congressional leaders are aware of this threat.

They're mostly politicians and attorneys, so their awareness often lacks some degree of technical have-a-clue, but they do get the basic concept that there are bad guys out there.

Unfortunately, our congressional leaders tend not to turn to our technical leaders. Instead, they spend a lot of time with lobbyists and former congressional leaders, who now work for special interests. These special interests and lobbies are also very well aware of the threat, but they have their own, often incredibly selfish take on how the threat should be dealt with.

This is how we get laws and bills like DMCA, SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and the like. Lobbyists conflate the risk of attack and theft from truly worrisome bad guys with their special interests and the result is often worse than no legislation at all.

Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin once said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The problem is that Congress doesn't value (or, perhaps, doesn't even understand) that our online liberty is the same as our offline liberty. Congress is often willing to propose bills that give up our essential digital liberty for some misguided temporary safety -- especially when it comes to protecting music labels and big video producers.

Make no mistake. We need comprehensive cybersecurity legislation, best practices, and instruction all the way from the residence of the White House down to our neighbors, the residents of that white house next door.

We must educate our leaders that, as Ben also said, "Distrust and caution are the parents of security." We must secure our nation from the billions of people out there who may choose to attack or steal from us. But we must not, ever, give up our fundamental freedoms, our fundamental privacy, in the pursuit of that security.

It's a fine line to walk. And rather than great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, we're stuck with the 112th U.S. Congress. Even so, we must approach this problem like patriots and not like just so many politicians hungry for pork.

Are we up for the challenge? I'd like to think so.

See also:

Topics: Security, CXO


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • I'm curious...

    Just HOW do people who have nothing but "one room huts with dirt floors, no running water, or toilets" can possibly have internet access?

    Please look carefully at the underlying unconscious motivations of the 'entitled' and monetary driven social values that we Americans have. We have the I have wealth and everyone else is out to steal it so I will put walls up to stop them. This even applies to other Americans who've been poorly educated or forced into a way of life dictated by external forces (often other Americans in businesses who make obscene profits from the labor of those 'poorer' than themselves).

    As a result of our material wealth social values, there are very few of us who actually DO anything to help improve the lots of those billions of poor here or in other countries. I'm not talking about enabling by handouts but rather providing minor changes and training which can bring lifestyle changing improvements to them.

    Much of the hatred of the United States comes from our constant profiteering off the conflicts that already exist both here in the USA and overseas. Yes, we also have a social convention that promotes the "I have it and you don't" judgmental value system and thus separation and conflict between the haves and have-nots.

    Can we change as we become international citizens? I'd bet not as our history of greedy human nature has shown us incapable of being much greater. Ben Franklin did have much right and he used his life to work with the foreign cultures to improve situations for all involved.

    Note: I'm NOT saying we don't need to pay attention to and secure both our physical and electronic borders from the criminally intent privileged groups and individuals who are much like us in many ways. Since they share some philosophical or religious difference they assume to be "right" does not change their criminal behavior. Nor does our own collective criminal behavior viewed from a more neutral 'higher moral ground' get excused.
    • Quo vadis?

      Maybe you can solve a mystery for me. Obviously, there was at one time a Global Minor Change and Training Agency which came to the U.S. and gave us the changes and training that made us so well off.

      What happened to them? Where are they now?
      Robert Hahn
      • Comedy?

        Is that what your reply was?

        As someone of American citizenship and having lived in many countries, I've seen the ugly side of Americans as we attempted to do what the British did in previous centuries. It's clear that empires want to dominate lesser powers, but only as we examine and improve ourselves can we be better international citizens. Only as we improve and show that we aren't all out to dominate and push down others can we make a positive change in the world around us.

        What we are today is a far cry from what the founders were but then there is the fact that the world is a much smaller place today than it was then. We must adapt as humans or the chaos will prevail.
      • they all died and the best and brightest went into wall street.

        or the military, or politics.
    • I think your view of the world

      is very naive and simple, it would be great, but it is not even close to reality, and you would find yourself dead pretty quick. So if it's so bad for you then - head out, beauty of our country is - yeah you can do that. But as you can see even Europe cannot have much in the "let's all hold hands". My brother works for the FBI, and basically Joe Q Public doesn't know 1% of what goes on out there...and you would wet your pants if you did.
      • RE: I think your view of the world

        How convenient. Big evil that we can't know about, but have to trust that the FBI has our best interest in heart, not a justification of their own careers. Kinda like the prison guard unions supporting stiff sentencing. Sorry, not buying it. As your brother's boss (a taxpayer), I want to know more than just 1%. That or find new jobs.

    • Internet access and the very poor

      @MasterE asks, "Just HOW do people who have nothing but "one room huts with dirt floors, no running water, or toilets" can possibly have internet access?"

      There are huge sweatshops that run what we'd think of as call centers throughout some of these nations. They often bus people in, sleep them in dorms, and return them home when they're either burnt out or at the end of their multi-day or multi-week work cycle. Sometimes those people are paid, but often they're more like indentured servants, having their "expenses" deducted before they get paid anything.

      Not a pretty story.
      David Gewirtz
    • Sigh. Poor nations are not poor

      because the United States is rich. Once you understand that basic truth, you will finally know what it takes to lift poor nations out of their poverty.
      • ignorance can be cured

        Now go read some history as well as some writings that made history. In fact Great Britian France and even the U.S. has exploited, changed natural boundries and installed dictators that would bend to the influence or requests from outside to the detriment of their own citizenary.
      • This is true, but...

        This is true, but that hasn't stopped many US companies, with US Government support, from profiting off of their poverty and misery, exploiting their resources and manpower, while wrapping ourselves in the flag and boasting how noble we are.

        Given a choice between a corrupt Government of their own, keeping the ill gained riches for themselves, and a corrupt Government created and/or propped up by the US Government and industries, shipping the riches or the natural resources away to make rich Americans richer and our lives easier, which do you think the peasants and middle class of those nations would prefer? They are both evil, but from their point of view, which is the lesser of two evils?

        Sure, they hate us because we are better off then them, but even more so because so much of our way of life has come to be by exploiting the less fortunate. The tons of charitable work we do is so easy to forget while the suffering and exploitation continues. A few greedy American companies, and the foreign policies designed around those Companies desires, have made every single American look like the enemy to the rest of the world. And all we had to do to participate was not object to it all.

        Yeah, they might have hated us anyway, but we made sure they hate us real good!

        Now, if you will excuse me, I have to sip my reasonably priced imported coffee, while wearing my reasonably priced foreign made clothes, and continue to use my reasonably priced foreign made electronic devices, and ponder why America (except for the 1%,) is losing a century's worth of economic and social advantages in the span of a few decades.
    • You really have to ask?

      "Just HOW do people who have nothing but "one room huts with dirt floors, no running water, or toilets" can possibly have internet access?"

      Once upon a time, I did not have internet access at home. But I had it at work. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, employers of these poor souls might have the means for internet access?

      It's not like it costs a lot there, either. My wife (in the Philippines) pays about $20 per month for broadband access, less than half what I pay. An hour in the cybercafe is about 25 cents, though -- there are cheaper options available.

      My inlaws have no running water, nothing we consider toilets, and pretty much a dirt floor in a multi-room house, but they have electricity and broadband access is available. It's a different world, but they can pick and choose their priorities.
  • It is easy to claim that someone would back your point of view

    when that person is no longer around to refute your claim.
    Tim Cook
    • Vulcan Logic

      Your Vulcan Logic is so right, yet you are still so wrong. You defy logic.
  • RE: Ben Franklin would say our online liberty is the same as liberty ...

    From the article:
    [i]As recently as the early 1990s, that dislike and desire was kept at a distance.[/i]

    Yes. let's not forget those who died and were injured in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, later in the decade. And the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. It didn't start with 9/11 as many believe.

    Having said this, a glaring failure of the 9/11 Commission was not to ask and explore the question: why? You hit on it in the article:

    [i]We do tend to muck about in many countries, with our particularly American sense of right and might.[/i]

    The solution is to stop mucking around "in many countries". We simply cannot afford to do it anymore. On many levels.

    Liberty is liberty. It doesn't matter what or where.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Go back farther....

      The pub bombing in in Germany in the mid 80s by Libya. At least Reagan had the balls to do something about it. He may have missed but he didn't just let it stand.
      Test Subject
      • Yes and you never heard from the SOB

        again...One of the few recent Presidents with actual ball$ to stand up for ourselves.
      • thats when all the military and dependents in germany were tought to look

        for IEDs under their cars prior to driving them.
      • except all the evidence

        pointed to it being Syria, not Libya. But the US couldn't attack Syria or they would stop buying weapons
  • What Ben Would Say

    Ben Franklin would ask, "Where's the Red Light District?"
    • That, too...

      He was a fascinating and complex man, with many strengths and flaws. Much like America, itself.
      David Gewirtz