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This edited collection examines the ethical trade-offs involved in cybersecurity: between security and privacy; individual rights and the good of a society; and between the types of burdens placed on particular groups in order to protect others.


Governments and society are increasingly reliant on cyber systems. Yet the more reliant we are upon cyber systems, the more vulnerable we are to serious harm should these systems be attacked or used in an attack. This problem of reliance and vulnerability is driving a concern with securing cyberspace. For example, a ‘cybersecurity’ team now forms part of the US Secret Service. Its job is to respond to cyber-attacks in specific environments such as elevators in a building that hosts politically vulnerable individuals, for example, state representatives. Cybersecurity aims to protect cyberinfrastructure from cyber-attacks; the concerning aspect of the threat from cyber-attack is the potential for serious harm that damage to cyber-infrastructure presents to resources and people.

These types of threats to cybersecurity might simply target information and communication systems: a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on a government website does not harm a website in any direct way, but prevents its normal use by stifling the ability of users to connect to the site. Alternatively, cyber-attacks might disrupt physical devices or resources, such as the Stuxnet virus, which caused the malfunction and destruction of Iranian nuclear centrifuges. Cyber-attacks might also enhance activities that are enabled through cyberspace, such as the use of online media by extremists to recruit members and promote radicalisation. Cyber-attacks are diverse: as a result, cybersecurity requires a comparable diversity of approaches.

Cyber-attacks can have powerful impacts on people’s lives, and so—in liberal democratic societies at least—governments have a duty to ensure cybersecurity in order to protect the inhabitants within their own jurisdiction and, arguably, the people of other nations. But, as recent events following the revelations of Edward Snowden have demonstrated, there is a risk that the governmental pursuit of cybersecurity might overstep the mark and subvert fundamental privacy rights. Popular comment on these episodes advocates transparency of government processes, yet given that cybersecurity risks represent major challenges to national security, it is unlikely that simple transparency will suffice.

Managing the risks of cybersecurity involves trade-offs: between security and privacy; individual rights and the good of a society; and types of burdens placed on particular groups in order to protect others. These trade-offs are often ethical trade-offs, involving questions of how we act, what values we should aim to promote, and what means of anticipating and responding to the risks are reasonably—and publicly—justifiable. This Occasional Paper (prepared for the National Security College) provides a brief conceptual analysis of cybersecurity, demonstrates the relevance of ethics to cybersecurity and outlines various ways in which to approach ethical decision-making when responding to cyber-attacks.

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