Defending the digital frontier

July 12, 2014

THE TERM “CYBERSPACE” was coined by William Gibson, a science-fiction writer. He first used it in a short story in 1982, and expanded on it a couple of years later in a novel, “Neuromancer”, whose main character, Henry Dorsett Case, is a troubled computer hacker and drug addict. In the book Mr Gibson describes cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators” and “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.”

His literary creation turned out to be remarkably prescient. Cyberspace has become shorthand for the computing devices, networks, fibre-optic cables, wireless links and other infrastructure that bring the internet to billions of people around the world. The myriad connections forged by these technologies have brought tremendous benefits to everyone who uses the web to tap into humanity’s collective store of knowledge every day.

But there is a darker side to this extraordinary invention. Data breaches are becoming ever bigger and more common. Last year over 800m records were lost, mainly through such attacks (see chart 1). Among the most prominent recent victims has been Target, whose chief executive, Gregg Steinhafel, stood down from his job in May, a few months after the giant American retailer revealed that online intruders had stolen millions of digital records about its customers, including credit- and debit-card details. Other well-known firms such as Adobe, a tech company, and eBay, an online marketplace, have also been hit.

The potential damage, though, extends well beyond such commercial incursions. Wider concerns have been raised by the revelations about the mass surveillance carried out by Western intelligence agencies made by Edward Snowden, a contractor to America’s National Security Agency (NSA), as well as by the growing numbers of cyber-warriors being recruited by countries that see cyberspace as a new domain of warfare. America’s president, Barack Obama, said in a White House press release earlier this year that cyberthreats “pose one of the gravest national-security dangers” the country is facing.

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