In his 2010 report to the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the American Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, took the surprising step of elevating cyber attacks to the number one position in his annual assessment of threats to US national security threats, putting it even above terrorism. In the opening lines of his report , he characterizes our vulnerability to cyber-attacks: “The national security of the United States, our economic prosperity, and the daily functioning of our government are dependent on a dynamic public and private information infrastructure, which includes telecommunications, computer networks and systems, and the information residing within. This critical infrastructure is severely threatened.”
Most of us use the Internet heavily for a variety of purposes: information gathering, connecting with friends, sharing data with a colleague, shopping, managing our finances, and so forth. For much of that activity, we are depending on reliable, secure communication. It is critical that our personal data, such as a credit card number, remains confidential, so that a malicious person somewhere on the line cannot swipe it. It is critical that someone else cannot impersonate us, stealing our identity on-line. Encryption technology provides us with that security. But it is not fool-proof. We can learn a lesson from the story of the Enigma code that the German military used in World War II. The Nazi soldiers regularly communicated important war plans with each other using this code, which they thought was keeping the communication secret. But the code had actually been broken, so that the Allies could decipher the messages, allowing them to eavesdrop on the enemy. We must guard against overconfidence in our security today as well. Our messages may have been compromised without our knowing.
The perceived security of Internet communication can also give a sense of anonymity (though this is often a false sense as well). Anonymity can provide some benefits, but it can also tempt us in a number of ways. We can use anonymity to avoid annoying return sales emails when visiting a shopping website or to blow the whistle on an illegal or unethical practice without suffering repercussions. However, we can also use anonymity to make false accusations without accountability, or to obtain music or software without paying for it even if the artist expects it, or to view pornography without anyone finding out. Anonymity bypasses accountability. It lets us indulge our sinful natures without getting caught. Of course we are all ultimately accountable to our Creator, but what about more immediate accountability? Usually our closest friends and associates can help keep us accountable because they have the most access to our personal lives. Our intimate friendships should help us lead a life of integrity. But if we use the power of private communication that the Internet and encryption provide, we hide that aspect of our lives from our friends and loved ones, bypassing the natural lines of accountability we would otherwise have to keep us on the straight and narrow. Just like showing ones checkbook to a friend to demonstrate real financial stewardship, or showing one’s calendar to a colleague for a double-check of one’s priorities, providing some transparency in Internet use might be a good thing. Transparency could be keeping one’s computer screen at work clearly visible to co-workers. It could be a teenager friending a parent on facebook so that Mom or Dad can check up (without ever leaving a comment that could embarrass them with their “real” friends, of course).
This same sort of credit and debit accounting of benefits and hazards applies not only at the personal level, but also for society more broadly too. Corporations, banks, even nations depend on secure electronic communications in support of good and even noble goals. But that same secrecy can cover criminal activity or harbor terrorist messages. Technology used to make war is often a back and forth of development to give one side an edge over the other. Technological developments often determine the victor, changing the course of history in the process. The casualties of war have mounted higher and higher as we have found more effective ways to kill one another. Isn’t it unfortunate that humanity has made leaps in technology often through military means? I am not advocating pacifism here – I do believe governments are armed with the sword, but such a powerful tool must be used carefully, in the cause of justice. Perhaps we can also see God’s grace in the peaceful uses we have later found for certain military technologies. Perhaps that in some small way is how we can beat at least some of our swords into plowshares.