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January 27, 2015
By Nicholas Leong


The Big Brother Dilemma


We expect our government to do many things. One of the many things are ensuring our safety in the country. But protecting its citizens used to be something simple. Today, the reality is that our protection may come at a price that some of us are unwilling to pay.

I attended two very interesting events last year and it was interesting how two separate topics inspired this article. The first was Vertex Innovation Forum on Cyber Security and Financial Technology and the other was IDC's Asia/Pacific Telecom Summit.

Growing threats
Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, Chairman of Israel Space Agency and Israel National Council for Research and Development shared that Israel now has to spend more resources in protecting its critical infrastructure system and it is not because they have grown drastically but because they are now becoming more connected.

And as we push forward with getting more devices and services connected, cyber attacks will one day be an attack that can cripple an entire country. One such example is the hacking of Sony Picture and most recently, Malaysia Airlines. It may look innocent, almost trivial at first glance, but the impact of the hack could set an ugly precedent. When Sony Pictures decided to pull the movie for the safety of its staff and the people involved in the movie, cyber terrorists won. And that is a scary thought. It might be very soon that a country may bow down to pressure not because of military strength but because they cannot cope with cyber attacks.

In order to protect its citizens, governments will need to monitor the traffic or information that will be accessed and shared by these devices. After all, threats can come from anywhere. But there is a huge problem in accessing and continuously monitoring such information.

What about my privacy?
One of the topics at the IDC event was about privacy. These days we share huge amount of information willingly and sometimes unknowingly as well. But we still want our privacy. We get mad when our favourite social media platforms disrespect our privacy. We frown when we are required to share our information with third parties.

However, when we expect connected devices to work the way they are supposed to, they need access to information and the freedom to use that information to achieve the desired results. And that is where the threat is. People with ill intentions for such information will find a way to get it.

The very people that we expect to protect us will use the same channels to stop them. And to stop them, they will need to know what we are sharing and how we are sharing them. But trust me, if any government openly say they are monitoring our information, it will blow up in their face. And that is the big brother dilemma.

How are you supposed to watch over the people that do not want you to watch them?

Communication is key
While it will not solve all the issues, I believe that communication is key. Governments these days need to communicate clearly to its people what they are monitoring and why. We need to understand the very real threat of cyber attacks.

I am not saying that they should go all out in a fear mongering campaign but educate the people on how threats to the country and ultimately the people are slowly evolving. Keeping quiet and trying to do it quietly would no longer work today. The best way is to get them to understand why you are doing so.

I can already hear people screaming that they will use the information they are monitoring for other reasons. That is a trust issue and one that requires a separate discussion. But I know that I rather have my government inform me what they are monitoring and why they are doing so.

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