Cybersecurity at the front

The Cybersecurity Bible by Hugo Hoffman encourages anyone who would be a cybersecurity specialist to “think like the enemy” (604). The guide counsels vigorous defence against potential attackers: purveyors of phishing attacks, de-authentication attacks, man-in-the-middle attacks, etc. Cybersecurity inevitably associates with defence, conflict, contest and war.

Surface vulnerabilities

Concepts of cybersecurity instil a sense of panic about risks and threats, an urgency that undoubtedly favours the interests of cybersecurity industries. One cyber security firm (IOActive Labs) refers to the “huge and unknown attack surface on smarter cities” (9).

That cities are prone to “surface vulnerabilities”  implies the city is a kind of fortress with boundaries threatened by breach from external forces, as if active agents are ever present and intent on sabotage. That adversarial framing of place is familiar to architecture, including the idea of a home as a fortress and early architectural theorist Vitruvius’s attention to catapults, ballistae and other means of breaching city walls and defending against attacks.

La guerre à trois

This militaristic framing also underpins the softer characterisations of the cybersecurity challenge. Consider the three fictional characters who live in cryptographic textbooks: Alice, Bob and Eve. As described in Simon Singh’s The Code Book , “Alice wants to send a message to Bob, or vice versa, and Eve is trying to eavesdrop” (257). The third party (Eve) wants to intercept communications between legitimate correspondents. That innocent sounding ménage à trois dramatises active malevolent agency.

Though many of us are concerned about privacy, in everyday social life we don’t assume that others want to actively invade our private communications or data. Rather than a militaristic framing, other metaphors apply to maintaining privacy. For example, the metaphor of leakage implies a container that holds something of value: our integrity, independence, relationships, information. Under this metaphor, secret-keepers don’t want that value diluted as it spills out and dissipates into general discourse. Secrets are objects of value to many and are shared in ways that preserve that value.

Everyday privacy

There may be no malicious agents wanting to intercept secret communications or capitalise on inadvertent exposure. Rather than enmity and war, emotional framings associated with pride, shame and gossip serve to preserve privacy in most everyday relationships.

In practice, the agency of Eve the saboteur may be inactive, or not present, or discouraged out of respect for Alice and Bob’s privacy. The militaristic cybersecurity model is of use in understanding how cryptography works but it’s worth noting how alien is this militaristic framing of everyday privacy. That said, many of us are loath to abandon the idea of armies altogether, and are content for them to be mostly invisible. In the same way, I think I am content for cybersecurity to operate beyond my everyday awareness, under the radar.



  • Image is of the Hill House (Helensburgh) Scotland by Charles Rennie Mackintosh — “caged” pending renovation.

Leave a Reply