Cyberspace: Privacy vs. security

Cyberspace: Privacy vs. security

Advances in information technologies and the increase in the use of the Internet have drastically changed human life. The biggest transformation has in fact occurred in cyberspace and a substantial amount of information has already been moved to online storage. These changes undoubtedly create various opportunities as well as challenges, not only for individuals but for states as well.

We all worry about our own individual privacy, yet the stakes are rather high at the state level. The scope of the challenges for national and international politics was revealed once again when Russia (which later denied any involvement) conducted a cyberattack against several Estonian public and private organizations in 2007, causing serious damage. Russia also used the same methods against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). Similarly, the Stuxnet worm attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010 delayed its enrichment activities for two years, exposing the vulnerabilities of states to cyberattacks.

In today’s world, states are competing against each other for the control of cyberspace, gathering intelligence against each other and trying to protect critical infrastructure, the privacy of its citizens and national security. As a result, they are investing huge amounts of money in cybersecurity. On Feb. 9 U.S. President Barack Obama announced his Cyber Security National Action Plan, which proposed investing over $19 billion, 35 percent more than last year, in cybersecurity in 2017.

Despite this investment, even the U.S. is still vulnerable to cyberattacks. Last year, millions of individual records and more than 5.6 million fingerprint records were stolen in the U.S. Even this is evaluated by U.S. security experts as a lesser evil since there is an even more threatening fear. As Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. Cyber Command, pointed out, what happens “if someone gets in the system and starts manipulating and changing data,” instead of simply stealing it? It would certainly be very difficult to detect such an attack, let alone respond to it. This is a very different world indeed.

Terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have also been trying to improve their capabilities in cyberspace, which is much cheaper, easier and safer than infiltrating terrorists into target countries.

These threats have forced states to increase their surveillance activities to deter cyberattacks before they happen. The recent battle between Apple and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding software which would allow the latter to access the smart phone of one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people last December has once more revealed the U.S.’ desire to expand its surveillance and probes into private lives regardless of the objections on the thin line between security and privacy.

Trying to unlock smart phones inherently contains the risk of opening Pandora’s Box in terms of privacy. The U.S. already has a negative image in the eyes of the world and even among its European allies in this respect. The trust in the U.S. is still shaky after the disclosure by former NSA contractor and FBI employee Edward Snowden, in 2013, of its surveillance activities against foreign state leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Thus, the latest move by the FBI has the potential to create another source of confrontation with Europe, which has a stricter view on privacy issues than the U.S.

As the usage of cyberspace increases, so will the risks for individuals and states, which have to find ways to deal with the multifaceted challenges and enhance their resilience capabilities while at the same time create accountable institutions which respect the privacies of their citizens.