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Casualties of War

In future, everything I write should carry a Government health warning.

Last week, the e-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, accused me of being an alarmist at a time when he believes, entirely correctly, that the information security debate would benefit from a rational assessment of the problems. There is a difference, of course, between being apocalyptic and alarmist and if one is simply drawing attention to a problem, for example, the correlation visible in data from Symantec and the NCC Group, between Broadband penetration and Internet-based attacks, then asking awkward questions should be in the public interest.

It’s clear that we hold opposing views of the problem but I would argue that actions speak louder than words and I’ve seen very little of the former to encourage greater confidence in ‘Government knows best’. Broadband promotion, I am told has nothing to do with Government, it’s an industry initiative and as a consequence, it’s up to the latter to tackle the security problems that arise from its use. I have the figures from BT for the number of open relays and open proxies on the network but as these are ‘Off the record’, I can’t reveal them but I can tell you that these are not insignificant.

Several quick phone calls and I find people agreeing that Government is not doing enough to educate the public and promote a culture of awareness where Internet security is involved. Lot’s of money is spent on brightly coloured UK Online taxis but dealing with the nastier consequences of the World Wide Web is mainly left to companies like BT. One of my sources who once held a senior InfoSec role in Government, comments, “People have to realise that big (Broadband) pipes work both ways and there’s no one-way valve to keep the unwanted side of the Internet out. If the Broadband ISPs are doing very little in the way of real customer education, then The Information Assurance Coordinator should be reconsidering Government’s role”. After all, if Government is so keen to encourage us to ride the information superhighway, shouldn’t it be doing more to publicise the hazards of high-speed surfing?

We now run into the ‘casualties of war’ argument and the one I like least. If Government stresses the dangers of the Internet too vigorously, then it’s possible that Broadband growth will slow as people worry about the risks instead of accepting the greater benefits of being a joined-up society. The e-Envoy has his trains and motorways analogy, which reminds us that we spend disproportionate millions on rail safety in contrast with road safety and we should accept that the Internet is a safe environment for most of us and that it’s not really up to Government to spend taxpayer’s money on promoting the on-line equivalent of ‘Safe Sex’.

I don’t believe that this argument holds water. The Internet is, on a regular basis, exposing the most vulnerable members of our society to material, which would be unacceptable in the physical world. Chat rooms, Spam, viruses, hacking, fraud, and the list is almost endless. Government wants everyone to have access to the Internet by 2006 and yet to use the Rail Track argument as a response to Andrew Pinder’s transport analogy, the issues surrounding surfing safety are mostly the responsibility of private companies who wish to sell connectivity and not confidence.

Should every Broadband Internet connection carry a health warning or are we happy to accept that a percentage of the population, MPs included, will become victims of ignorance? Is it Government’s role to spend taxpayer’s money on better educating society on the safe use of this new medium of communication or is Government simply acting as regulator and facilitator? Is how we deal with the challenges of Pandora ’s Box, once it’s been opened in the home, really a matter for the service providers and not one for Government?


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