Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Cybersecurity – an invisible issue?

Melissa Hathaway recently gave an excellent talk at Salve Regina University – a clear, impassioned and compelling overview of the cybersecurity issue, and the stakes involved.  From my perspective, one important aspect of the talk, hosted by the Pell Center, is that it reflected the challenges inherent in trying to create more informed public dialog about public policy.

How do you get a national conversation going on a topic most people are barely aware of and probably don’t understand?

Hathaway’s deep expertise comes from years working as a consultant at the highest levels of the corporate and government worlds, as well as in top security positions in both the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations.  And her talk made it clear as day that the issue of cybersecurity is one that we should all be taking more seriously – everyone from individuals and families, to small businesses to large corporations and national governments. Given that digital and online activity are woven into nearly every facet of contemporary life, attention to the safe and proper functioning of our cyber-infrastructure is as important as – and often literally essential to – the functioning of water systems or power grids.

Once you consider it, it’s a topic of obvious and far-reaching importance.

Yet common sense tells us most people probably aren’t considering it, aren’t nearly as aware of or concerned about it as they ought to be. In her talk, Hathaway called for all of us to pay more attention to this issue, get involved, demand change and take personal action. Do we believe there is popular momentum in this direction now? I don’t. After years of exploring average Americans’ attitudes and priorities on everything from the arts to global warming to nuclear security, I don’t recall a single time when this issue was brought up. People may be increasingly concerned about protecting themselves from identify theft at the individual level, but any broader sense of “cybersecurity”? My guess is that not only does the issue not register on average Americans’ list of serious concerns, they would have trouble explaining what it even means.

What’s more, I would guess that engaging public attention on the issue – short of a major disaster of some kind – will involve, among other things, finding effective ways to very quickly explain and paint a picture of the topic. Melissa Hathaway is doing an excellent job communicating with business and other leaders, here and abroad about the topic. And the Pell Center is doing its part, putting out eye-opening reports that are already influencing decision-makers. But since most average people won’t read such reports or have the chance to hear a forty-five minute presentation by one of the world’s leading experts and professionals in this area, they will have to be brought in through much quicker communications, that somehow paint a clear picture of the topic we’re talking about, and let them know something about either the stakes, the opportunities to do better, or both.

Finding those effective talking points, metaphors, images, examples etc. isn’t always easy, but if Hathaway is right and greater public engagement on this issue is essential, then advocates may have no choice but to try.

Otherwise, cybersecurity may remain basically an invisible issue – not just because most of us don’t think about it, but because it’s hard to think about even if we try.

[Post revised December 9, 2013]

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