Victoria Baines closed the FIRST conference with a challenge to improve our image (video). Try searching for “cyber security” and you’ll see why: lots of ones, zeroes, padlocks, and faceless figures in hoodies. Some of the latter look a lot like the grim reaper, which makes the task seem hopeless: in fact, cyber badguys can be resisted. And you don’t need to read binary or work in a datacentre to do it.
What’s especially odd is that similar images and phrases are often used for defenders, too. Mystique may make us feel good, but it doesn’t help with recruitment and retention. We need a much wider range of skills, personalities and people to defend the online world. And referring to them as superheroes doesn’t help either: everyone can, and should, contribute to their own and others’ security. Of course superheroes save the world: that’s what they do. What we need to celebrate is the ordinary people who save the world by their choices and actions: reporting odd-looking websites or double-checking when the CEO asks them to buy gift vouchers.
Victoria’s research traces this hyperbole back two thousand years. If you are trying to draw attention to a threat, overstate it, whether it is a “Cybercrime Tsunami” in 2003, or flying chamberpots in the streets of 1st Century Rome (though Mary Beard thinks Juvenal may not have been overstating much!). Sadly, Victoria’s recent book on the Rhetoric of Insecurity is priced for academic libraries, but her Gresham College lecture series, starting this autumn, will be free in person, online or on YouTube.
So what’s the alternative? We need a message and images that encourage everyone to do their bit. Maybe it’s worth returning to the idea of (individual) cyber-hygiene: not so much “coughs and sneezes spread diseases”, but “catch it, bin it, kill it” might have promise.
But if you are thinking “cyber-pandemic”, please don’t!