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The danger of cybersecurity 'ghettos'

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 4, 2013
Expert warns that without 'harmonisation' of security standards among rich and poor nations, the global economy will decline and cyber risks will increase

Ghettos are not good, whether they are at the local, state or national level. They tend to breed unrest, dysfunction and crime that can extend well beyond their borders, undermining the health of an entire society.

And the high-tech version of that should worry the world IT community, according to Allan Friedman, a fellow and research director at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation.

Friedman warns in a research paper for Brookings titled, "Cybersecurity and Trade: National Policies, Global and Local Consequences," that a lack of coordination and cooperation regarding cybersecurity among nation states could create "cyber security ghettos," and undermine the security of the global cyber environment.

Friedman also issued that warning at a forum last month at Brookings that he moderated, titled "Implications of cybersecurity regulations and international trade." While the major focus of the discussion was "non-tariff barriers to trade" and the impact that a hodge-podge of security standards could have on the world economy, Friedman also warned of the potential security risks of nation-state "ghettos."

"As rich countries get better at protecting themselves, the threats and bad actors will more and more find refuge in the infrastructure and systems of poor countries that don't have the resources to protect themselves," he said, adding that, "in a networked world, it's not just enough to defend yourself. If your neighbor's insecure, that poses a threat to you."

Friedman was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment. But other security experts said there is merit to his concern. Asked if such "ghetto" states already exist, Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council, said they do if they are defined as, "places that harbor criminals, like Eastern Europe, Russia, or Nigeria today, or ... a place with bad standards that is picked on by others. Both are bad and yes, we have both today," he said.

"Though as with real ghettos, they can go from bad to really, really ugly if you're not careful. As I've put it in other contexts, cyberspace is the Wild West today, but if we keep on with current policies it could become Somalia tomorrow," he said.

Friedman offered several recommendations to avoid or ameliorate the ghetto problem. One is that wealthier countries should help poorer countries to improve their security. "Beyond their own borders, developed countries should promote global cybersecurity capacity building. Cybersecurity is a global problem. If developing countries do not have the capacity to defend their networks, it puts the world's systems at risk," he wrote.

He also called for, "international or harmonized security standards. Shared standards enable security without erecting barriers to trade," he said, "(but) at the same time, we should(not expect a single, global standard for all IT."


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