Cybersecurity Threats and Basic Cyber Hygiene

Editor’s Note: In a December 20, 2013 interview with The Oxford Club’s Market Wake Up Call, Peter W. Singer talks about his new book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. He explains the basics of cybersecurity and online threats, how individuals and even states can protect themselves, and why it all matters in the long-run.

Steve McDonald: How bad is this threat? We hear a lot about it on the news. How focused is it?

Peter W. Singer: There’s two ways to think about it. One’s in terms of the raw numbers that are just astronomical in their growth. For example, there are over 100,000 new pieces of malware – malevolent software – found each and every day. But to me, when you’re thinking about the threat, it’s the way it’s become more organized- so, transnational criminal networks and in particular state-sponsored operations. And when it comes to the business side, just the massive intellectual property theft that’s been going on, particularly emanating from certain large Asian powers.

McDonald: Now, is this as great a threat – we hear about the threat to government and industry all the time – but how great is the threat to the individual?

Singer: Well, for the individual there are a couple of challenges here. One is just in terms of we, they, everyone is on cyberspace. So we’re using it but we’re also being targeted both for our own assets in terms of cybercrime and identity theft but also as the way into the organizations that we connect to. But there’s another thing I need to be clear about here when thinking about all these growing threats: we also need to better understand them. In terms of better understanding we need to understand that our ignorance is being taken advantage of, whether it’s the hacker that’s going after us, but also businesses that are trying to trick us into spending on things that maybe we shouldn’t, to state-level things – organizations, governments that are stoking fears to go after greater funding. So, one of the things here in terms of the individual, you have to think about it both in terms of protecting yourself online but also the role that you play as a consumer, as a shareholder, and frankly as a citizen.

McDonald: If you could focus on one thing that the individual has to do to protect himself, what do you think it is?

Singer: Well, as scary as this all seems, it’s actually not something to pull your head out and say “there’s no answer.” If you follow what’s essentially known as cyber hygiene, very basic things in terms of having good passwords, changing them, not putting unknown equipment into your system, not clicking on links that common sense should tell you not to- your sister asking you for your bank account number when she somehow needs this when she’s in Iceland, and your sister doesn’t live in Iceland. And let me be clear, these things to protect yourself, this basic cyber hygiene, they would work on many of the national levels. So for example, the biggest successful attack on the U.S. military, the one that got in their secure networks, all happened because someone picked up a memory stick that they found in a parking lot and plugged it into their computer. I mean, this is basic hygiene- they didn’t respect the five second rule, so to speak.

McDonald: Your book, the title is Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. I know it probably took you five years to write, but can you give us a kind of synopsis in 15 to 20 seconds?

Singer: Sure. So the goal of the book is to provide an easy to read guide to the key questions, to lay out how it all works, why it all matters, and what can we do in terms of everything from the national level, the business level, the investor level, all the way down to protecting yourself and your family online. The hope of it is that it helps keep us from being taken in by our own ignorance and start to better manage this and to frankly better understand these important issues that are out there. Along the way, we tell some cool, fun stories about either the characters, such as how Pakistan held hostage all the world’s cat videos, and learn lessons from history like the real story of the Pirates of the Caribbean or things that we can take from the Cold War, etc.