Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 27, 2012

Cybersecurity: A gale is brewing in the rocky waters of unknowing

Filed under: Cybersecurity — by Philip J. Palin on April 27, 2012

From Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Late Thursday afternoon the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) was passed by the House on a bipartisan vote of 248-168.  Forty-two Democrats voted for the bill and 28 Republicans voted against it. Senate approval seems unlikely.  The White House has raised the prospect of a veto.

Cybersecurity is a compound derived from cybernetics, a term coined in 1948.  Cybernetics is the study of biological and cultural systems of control adapted to mechanical or electronic devices.  Norbert Wiener based his neologism on the classical Greek kybernetike meaning helmsman, navigator, pilot and in some contexts: governor.  (Some will recall that Mao was called the “Great Helmsman”.)

As a matter of etymology, cybersecurity means “steering-to-be-carefree” or less literally, “navigating for open water.”

This week several members of the House, operating on a bipartisan basis, attempted to advance substantive cybersecurity legislation even in the shadow of a quadrennial election marked by especially sharp partisanship.  The proposals encountered bipartisan opposition.

It is worth acknowledging good faith on each side.  This was an example of our legislators attempting to navigate the ship-of-state through treacherous waters.  We can disagree with individual choices.  I don’t see cause to question individual intentions.

Nonetheless, such questions were deployed, accusations traded, and nefarious purposes perceived.  No great surprise in regard to cybersecurity or anything else.

Each side is attempting to steer between what many perceive as two great rocks: one threatening to turn our own government into a privacy-devouring monster while the other is already undermining our economic and military strength.  Which rock is more dangerous?  Toward which is the current pushing us?  Is there a safe way between? (To see the solution found by Jason and the Argonauts, check out this YouTube.)


Until the mid-19th Century students were usually introduced to Plato with First Alcibiades.  In this dialogue Socrates engages in his well-known method of inquiry with a promising young politician. The narrative explores the tension between decisions made for effect and decisions that are effective.

Below is a Reader’s Digest version of First Alcibiades.  For me it has implications for the current cybersecurity legislation, homeland security policy/strategy, and probably much more.

Socrates: Do you not see, then, that mistakes in life and practice are likewise to be attributed to the ignorance which has conceit of knowledge?
Alcibiades: Once more, what do you mean?
Socrates: I suppose that we begin to act when we think that we know what we are doing?
Alcibiades: Yes.
Socrates: But when people think that they do not know, they entrust their business to others?
Alcibiades: Yes.
Socrates: And so there is a class of ignorant persons who do not make mistakes in life, because they trust others about things of which they are ignorant?
Alcibiades: True.
Socrates: Who, then, are the persons who make mistakes? They cannot, of course, be those who know?
Alcibiades: Certainly not.
Socrates: But if neither those who know, nor those who know that they do not know, make mistakes, there remain those only who do not know and think that they know. (Bold highlight not in the original.)
Alcibiades: Yes, only those.
Socrates: Then this is ignorance of the disgraceful sort which is mischievous?
Alcibiades: Yes.
Socrates: And most mischievous and most disgraceful when having to do with the greatest matters?
Alcibiades: By far.
Socrates: And can there be any matters greater than the just, the honourable, the good, and the expedient?

Are our legislators asking authentic questions of those opposed to their proposals?  Are they listening carefully to the answers? Are we?  Do our answers acknowledge the reasonable and substantive concern of those asking questions?  Alcibiades was not so inclined.  He tended to see his political rivals as his enemy.  Socrates argued otherwise.

Socrates: And suppose that you were going to steer a ship into action, would you only aim at being the best pilot on board? Would you not, while acknowledging that you must possess this degree of excellence, rather look to your antagonists, and not, as you are now doing, to your fellow combatants?

What do we really know about our cyber-antagonists: criminals, vandals, terrorists, and more?  Technically, tactically, strategically what are the capabilities and objectives of our adversaries?  What is our claim?  What is our case?  Does the evidence persuade? Do we sometimes — inappropriately, even self-destructively — see those who question our claims as adversaries rather than allies in a common cause?

Socrates: What art makes men know how to rule over their fellow-sailors,— how would you answer?
Alcibiades: The art of the pilot. (Palin: aretes kybernetike)…
Socrates: And what do you call the art of fellow-citizens?
Alcibiades: I should say, good counsel, Socrates.
Socrates: And is the art of the pilot evil counsel?
Alcibiades: No.
Socrates: But good counsel?
Alcibiades: Yes, that is what I should say,— good counsel, of which the aim is the preservation of the voyagers.
Socrates: True. And what is the aim of that other good counsel of which you speak?
Alcibiades: The aim is the better order and preservation of the city.

How do we take good counsel together? Is there any way other than asking questions, listening carefully — even sympathetically — to uncomfortable answers, and then asking uncomfortable questions before listening again?  Is this what we saw in the House this week?  Is this what you experienced in your home, neighborhood, workplace and city this week?

Socrates: O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’— not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill…
Alcibiades: I entirely believe you; but what are the sort of pains which are required, Socrates,— can you tell me?

If  Socrates’ claim — Know Thyself — seems off-topic, irrelevant to cybersecurity, and impractical for present purposes, please explain why.  Socrates, or probably Plato, makes this case:

Socrates: Consider; if some one were to say to the eye, ‘See thyself,’ as you might say to a man, ‘Know thyself,’ what is the nature and meaning of this precept? Would not his meaning be:— That the eye should look at that in which it would see itself?
Alcibiades: Clearly.
Socrates: And what are the objects in looking at which we see ourselves?
Alcibiades: Clearly, Socrates, in looking at mirrors and the like.
Socrates: Very true; and is there not something of the nature of a mirror in our own eyes?
Alcibiades: Certainly.
Socrates: Did you ever observe that the face of the person looking into the eye of another is reflected as in a mirror; and in the visual organ which is over against him, and which is called the pupil, there is a sort of image of the person looking?
Alcibiades: That is quite true.
Socrates: Then the eye, looking at another eye, and at that in the eye which is most perfect, and which is the instrument of vision, will there see itself?
Alcibiades: That is evident.
Socrates: But looking at anything else either in man or in the world, and not to what resembles this, it will not see itself?
Alcibiades: Very true.
Socrates: Then if the eye is to see itself, it must look at the eye, and at that part of the eye where sight which is the virtue of the eye resides?
Alcibiades: True.
Socrates: And if the soul, my dear Alcibiades, is ever to know herself, must she not look at the soul; and especially at that part of the soul in which her virtue resides, and to any other which is like this?
Alcibiades: I agree, Socrates.
Socrates: And do we know of any part of our souls more divine than that which has to do with wisdom and knowledge?
Alcibiades: There is none.
Socrates: Then this is that part of the soul which resembles the divine; and he who looks at this and at the whole class of things divine, will be most likely to know himself?
Alcibiades: Clearly.
Socrates: And self-knowledge we agree to be wisdom?
Alcibiades: True.

Let’s look each other in the eye, ask, answer, and listen carefully.  We depend on this dialogue — especially with those who disagree with us — to open the way to any sort of wisdom.

By the way: despite Socrates best effort, Alcibiades became a successful politician and a catastrophic helmsman. Athens suffered horribly from his persistent lack of self-knowledge. This did not dissuade Socrates from encouraging self-knowledge among others.  But this was not always well-received.  See the Apology.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 27, 2012 @ 8:15 am

In this instance better to understand the growing impacts and vulnerabilities of SCADA then yourself.

And of course understanding interoperability, redundacy, compatibility, reliabililty, and alternative systems and approaches to any given technology more important each day. I always argued for a supply of bicycles in DC for the various departments and agencies now possessing over 50 EOC of various types mostly in locations that are ready targets for attack or even that most feared event a grid outage. Yes, believe moving the Pentagon to Ft. Riley and DHS elsewhere would be a real upgrade to USA HD and HS.

And did you notice it was a new female executive that spilled the beans on the “boys” of the Secret Service. Perhaps, an all female Secret Service would end the problems raised by testerone. A weapon of mass disruption if ever there was one.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 27, 2012 @ 8:36 am

Bill, Agreed that the technical knowledge would help and is not widespread. But the debate, as I read it, has been much more about what is feared, why it is feared, and how different people engage their fear in very different ways. The debate also suggests, at least to me, a lack of much self-awareness regarding this foundational issue.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 27, 2012 @ 10:11 am

Yes Phil self-awareness just like self-effacement not common in DC area these days. Whom the Gods would destroy they first make “______”?

Comment by John Comiskey

April 27, 2012 @ 12:58 pm


Like Chris B., I have come to realize how little I know about cyber security and how much there is to know. I put it in the category of PFM (pure f’ magic). I recently used PFM in a class and got some OMG did he just say that looks.

I have used GIS operationally without in-depth knowledge of the technology and always had someone near to steer the GIS-PFM and it always worked out. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much PFM I use trusting that the M-part will be get me through the day.

Socrates was the antithesis of the PFM cognition. He always sought out the M-part: explain to me what you mean when you say xyz and let’s examine the premise, logic, assumptions, other.

In this and other GIS-like instances, I will default to the idea that some of the M is best left to PFM-like people and in this case cyber-PFM-like people.

Dizzy yet?

The one thing I do understand is that cyber security is not a USG thing. Cyber security is intrinsically a wicked problem that the international community might be able to reign in knowing that no one will ever master cyberspace.

It is like being the parent of 16 year and 19 year old teenagers. BTW, I txt. lol


Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 27, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

John: I perceive Socrates was ready to recognize the “magic” of others as long as they could reasonably account for the magic. He would readily defer to the demonstrated or well-articulated knowledge of others.

On the technical options of cybersecurity Socrates would have questioned and listened to those with expert knowledge. Once he had heard out the experts on the options, I’m pretty sure he would have felt competent, even obliged, to work his way through the implications of the options for virtue (arete) and human well-being (eudaimonia).

And I hear Socrates arguing that ultimately the security of the state is fundamentally dependent on the guardians and governors of the state having expert knowledge of virtue and human well-being. If this is worthwhile, the implications for a democracy are especially challenging. It’s not just a matter of legislators, its all of us.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

April 27, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

I suggest that the term “cybersecurity” actually was derived from “cyberspace,” a term coined in the 1980s by William Gibson. There’s really nothing about “cybersecurity” that relates to cybernetics, IMHO. But I digress.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 27, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

Alan: I will not argue a likely relationship to cyberspace. But according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, cyberspace is derived from cybernetics:

Cyberspace, 1982, often as two words at first, coined by science fiction writer William Gibson (best known for “Neuromancer”) and used by him in a short story published in 1982, from cyber- (see cybernetics) + space.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

GAO has new report out on cyber security threats!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 30, 2012 @ 11:55 am

From CRS: Cybersecurity: Authoritative Reports and Resources, April 26, 2012

Pingback by Library: A Round-up of Reading | Res Communis

May 1, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

[…] Cybersecurity: A gale is brewing in the rocky waters of unknowing – Homeland Security Watch […]

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