Keeping Up With... Cybersecurity, Usability, and Privacy
This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Bohyun Kim.
What is Cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity is a broad term. It refers to the activities, practices, and technology that keep computers, networks, programs, and data secure and protected from harmful activities such as unauthorized access, modification, or damage. We became familiar with this term, ‘cybersecurity,’ through the reports of recent security breaches at J.P Morgan, Target, Sony, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to name a few. The government and higher education institutions are not an exception to cyberattacks. In 2015, the Office of Personnel Management of the U.S. Federal Government got hacked twice, and its sensitive data was stolen. In 2014, University of Maryland at College Park and Indiana University also suffered similar data breaches.
To prevent such a data breach, institutional IT staff are trained to protect their systems against vulnerabilities and intrusion attempts. Employees and end users are educated to be careful about dealing with institutional or customers’ data. There are systematic measures that organizations can implement such as two-factor authentication, stringent password requirements, and locking accounts after a certain number of failed log-in attempts. While the term, ‘cybersecurity,’ may sound grand, actual cybersecurity measures can be mundane ranging from keeping the software versions and patches up-to-date, keeping viruses and malware away with effective anti-virus and anti-spyware, educating users so that they won’t fall for phishing or email scams, and backing up the data on a regular basis.
Competing Concerns – Cybersecurity vs. Usability and Privacy
However, some of the cybersecurity measures may negatively affect the usability of systems and applications, thereby lowering users’ productivity. One good example is the website of the United States Postal Service (https://www.usps.com/). The USPS website does not provide a way to reset the password for users who forgot their usernames. Furthermore, if a user enters wrong answers to the two security questions to retrieve the password more than twice, the system automatically locks the account. Clearly, the system that does not allow the password reset is more secure than the one that does. But average users do forget their passwords, usernames, and even the answers to the security questions that they set up themselves. That makes this USPS site seriously flawed in terms of usability. As another example, imagine that a library decides to block all international traffic to their licensed e-resources to prevent foreign hackers from accessing those e-resources. This would certainly help libraries avoid a potential breach of licensing terms in advance. But it would also render those e-resources unusable to the legitimate users traveling abroad.
Security is important, but systems and applications also exist for users to do their job. The more user-friendly and the simpler the cybersecurity guidelines are to follow, the more users will observe them, thereby making networks and systems more secure.
Another competing concern is the invasion of privacy. Through the documents that Edward Snowden leaked in 2013, we know that NSA collected the communication records of millions of people in bulk, regardless of suspicion of wrongdoing through Verizon. After a cyberattack against the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California system installed a device that is capable of capturing, analyzing, and storing all network traffic to and from the campus for over 30 days without consulting or notifying the faculty and those who would be subject to the monitoring. In February 2016, the FBI requested Apple to create a backdoor application that will bypass the current security measure in place in its iOS in relation to the San Bernadino shooting incident. In April 2016, an anti-encryption bill was submitted to the Senate, which proposed that people should be required to comply with any authorized court order for data and that if that data is “unintelligible” – meaning encrypted – then it must be decrypted for the court.
These recent events show that certain cybersecurity measures can be used to greatly invade privacy rather than protect it. This is ironic because security is essential to privacy. Because we do not always fully understand how the technology actually works or how it can be exploited for both good and bad purposes, we need to be careful about giving blank permission to any party to access, collect, and use our private data without clear understanding, oversight, and consent.
Librarianship is a fundamentally user-oriented profession. As such, librarians have been making great efforts to make library-related data, systems, and applications as user-friendly as possible. These efforts should continue along with the efforts to make those data, systems and applications secure. Library resources, systems, and applications all exist to be used, and that is why they need to be secured after all, not the other way around.
At the same time, libraries must continue to keep sensitive patron data safe and protected to ensure people’s privacy and intellectual freedom. As more libraries try to collect, retain, and analyze a variety of library data to improve their services and collections, this will become even more important. The Electronic Frontier Foundation states that privacy means respect for individuals’ autonomy, anonymous speech, and the right to free association. If part of a library’s mission is to contribute to helping people to become such autonomous human beings through learning and sharing knowledge without having to worry about being observed and/or censored, libraries should advocate for people’s privacy both online and offline as well as in all forms of communication technologies and devices.
 This article is a revised and significantly shortened version of my previous blog post published in the ACRL TechConnect blog. Bohyun Kim, "Cybersecurity, Usability, Online Privacy, and Digital Surveillance,"ACRL TechConnect Blog, May 9, 2016.
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