When your own data is used against you

A denial of service attack could shut communication to New Zealand down, says dr Andrew Colarik.

By Dr Andrew Colarik.

So much of our livelihoods are now connected to the digital space. Our primary industries, which are the backbone of the economy, globally compete using information and communications technologies (ICT). The buying, selling and distribution of goods and services are enabled with the 1s and 0s of the global information infrastructure. With these technologies, supply chains are fulfilled and relationships maintained.

The immense growth of the internet has given us access to information and markets that previously would have taken huge logistics to establish. It’s easy to see the advantages of this new reality. But, all too often, we see only the benefits of change and not the consequences until it’s too late.

New Zealand has embraced the internet. We are a small country so it is no small feat that we have created a $200 billion economy with a population of around 4.5 million. In relative terms, that is the size of Apple Inc. In today’s competitive market place, they face fierce global competition, and so do we.

Now imagine what the rest of the world sees. A small group of people with a very large, yummy pie. Can they come and take it away? Could we stop them if they tried? Truth be told, professing to be small may invite more threats, not less, in this digital landscape.

This is the new reality: there is a direct correlation between gross domestic product (GDP) and internet use. (See Table 1 below). For over a decade, those countries that have invested heavily in this space have yielded significant transformations in their economies. Egypt, Vietnam and the Philippines are only the latest to realise this truth. In fact, Vietnam is ranked 57th, just below New Zealand. The big question is: Where will they be in a few years?

Can you have both privacy and security? Probably not

Will this new infrastructure allow countries like Vietnam to compete directly with our primary industries? Vietnam has already eroded Colombia’s dominance of the world coffee market and severely damaged its economy – there is no reason why New Zealand couldn’t be next. We need to understand what would happen if our competitors decide to disrupt our supply chains in order dominate the market for themselves.

For over a decade, the mantra in national security has been that you can have both privacy and security, but this is a false premise. Huge amounts of information are being scooped up by government, businesses and individuals. These databases are also being integrated together, creating unforeseen consequences that are beginning to negatively impact on people’s lives.

Coupled with this is an emerging awareness that our critical infrastructure – like telecommunications and power grids, which support the backbone of economy – is vulnerable to attack. In a highly competitive digital space, it’s a war of attrition.

In recent years, completely overwhelming resources and capacity has been one approach by rivals through the use of distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. Contemplate the loss of communication for a week, or even a month. In this digital isolation, what would become of our economy, relationships and society? Traditionally, infrastructure needs have been based on population size but the threat landscape is now much bigger. We need to consider the cost of not expanding our capacities in order to keep the information flowing.

Dr Andrew Colarik.

Information protection is the key to our futures

We must also consider what would happen if our own information is used against us. Customer details, costing and pricing structures, and other intellectual properties are all subject to competitive interests. We need to focus on the things we do have the power to change – the information that flows through this infrastructure, its use, collection, storage, access and, one day, maybe its destruction.

A genuine public/private partnership is essential for ensuring everyone’s prosperity in the digital future to come. Information protection is the key to our futures and New Zealand needs to revisit and strengthen its privacy laws to ensure its security in this space.

We need much greater discussion about who owns and controls our information; why information is retained and for how long; and who is actually held responsible when it is used against us. Only with a robust framework for protecting digital information will we have a future where we need not be scared that our digital footprint will be used against us.

Dr Andrew Colarik is a senior lecturer with Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

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