See things clearly

Looking back at the past year, few issues have as quickly gained the attention of both business and political leaders as that of cybersecurity.


When we consider some of the cyber events that have occurred during the past 12 months, perhaps it’s not surprising.  For example,


Epsilon – in March, a successful cyber attack on the American marketing email provider, netted hackers customer information from about 2,500 businesses


Distribute.IT – in June, a hack destroyed 4 servers belonging to Australian website hosting company. Many small businesses lost their websites and other data, including back-ups


Adidas – during November, criminals forced the German global sportswear retailer to take down its websites for a number of days, so as to protect customer data.


And there were also many incidents involving both governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  One such was the months long attack on The International Monetary Fund, during which it suffered a ‘major breach’ of its systems.


Attempts are underway to create, ‘better collective understanding of how to protect and preserve the tremendous opportunities that the development of cyberspace offers us all.’


For example, the UK government recently hosted the London Conference on Cyberspace, a gathering of 60 countries, business leaders, journalists and interest groups.


Speakers at the event came from a diverse range of backgrounds, including


  • Politicians and legal officers from the East, the West and the Non-Aligned Movement
  • CxO’s of both global corporations and NGOs
  • academics and experts from leading universities and think-tanks.


James Manyika, a senior partner at McKinsey, made the point that,

“It has taken 15 years for the internet to achieve a level of economic growth that it took the industrial revolution 50 years to achieve.”

In today’s digital age, where we increasingly rely on flows of data to do many things, this is a double-edged sword. 


During, and since, the industrial revolution, architects, engineers and scientists spent decades creating standards and practices so that flows of water, steam, electricity, oil, components and petrol could be used safely.


How a business worked was clearly understood.


Today, the reason so many IT projects fail, or are vulnerable to outages, or are compromised in a cyber attack, is that there is a lack of comparable clarity about how data flows through and between organisations.


Flows of data are vulnerable, chiefly because there are no standards for flows of data. 


Looked at in historical context, this is not unusual.


During earlier eras of economic change, when an exciting new technology revolutionised business,  complementary standards for managing key economic flows would often take many years to develop, often in the face of vested industry opposition.


For example, it took a few decades of accidents, and thousands of deaths, before the US boiler industry reached a consensus on managing flows of steam in the early 20th century.


Today, though, flows of data are proportionately much more important to business, economy and society than flows of steam were over 100 years ago.


Yet, as I argued previously, we have proportionately less understanding of the interdependencies between the assets that enable critical business flows.


At a time of global economic crisis, this is hardly a good situation. 


It is critical that both government and business create clarity about how data flows through and between organisations.


As the Indian government’s draft National Cyber Security Policy document states [pdf, p.4],

“The security of cyber space is not an optional issue but an imperative need in view of its impact on national security, public safety and economic well-being.”




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