Melissa Hathaway may have unnerved the audience with her keynote presentation at GTEC, the government technology conference in Ottawa on Oct. 20. But her point that Canada’s digital infrastructure is in danger may be just what tech-focused civil servants needed to hear.
Hathaway was the director of the U.S. Joint Interagency Cyber Task Force during George W. Bush’s presidency and a member of the National Security Council during the Obama administration. She also belongs to the global Commission on Internet Governance, which researches public web policy.
In her GTEC keynote, Hathaway said governments generally approach the web with the right intentions but the wrong measures, especially with respect to information security. Unless governments change their tactics, they could undermine the Internet as an economic engine.
People see the web as a platform for innovation, productivity and efficiency. Governments support that viewpoint by investing in IT research, high-tech skills development and other activities, she said. At the same time, we as a society are wary of the web. News of malware, information theft and cyber espionage make people nervous that the Internet is dangerous. So governments introduce laws to block spam, find criminals and stop terrorists online.
The economy on one side, security on the other—that’s how governments tackle web governance. “We’re not aligning these agendas,” Hathaway said. And lacking alignment, we could be in trouble. Government security measures may protect people’s information, but they could also weaken the web’s economic viability. She pointed to laws designed to ensure information generated within a country stays in that country, for example. These laws are meant to help safeguard information. Yet they also hinder the global flow of data. And many of the economic benefits of the web depend on worldwide information sharing, she said.
Governments need a new approach. Hathaway calls for a joint view that encompasses security and the economy together. “They’re the same coin,” she said. One way governments can do that: focus on just three areas where the web matters, namely energy, finance and telecommunications infrastructure. By targeting those, governments will have an easier time linking security and the economy.
So what does this mean for Canada? It’s fair to say that our country already knows how important it is to foster an open and safe Internet. Have a look at Digital Canada 150, the federal government’s strategy for national communications infrastructure, published in 2014. Note two prime focus areas: protecting Canadians and economic opportunities. With respect to protection, the government touts laws to stop spam, defend privacy and curtail cyber bullying. Regarding the economy, the strategy promotes high-tech skills development, a streamlined regulatory environment and new technology research.
Canada seems to be pointed in the right direction. But judging from Hathaway’s presentation, a government that has both security and the economy in mind doesn’t necessarily realize how interrelated they are. And lacking that recognition, Canada could wind up hurting the digital economy, the very thing the country wants to support.
Hathaway’s warning may be the right message for Ottawa’s policy people, especially now that the country has a new federal government following the Oct. 19 election. Let’s watch to see if her words of wisdom convince the Trudeau Liberals to look at web security and the economy as connected, not isolated.