Fear Sells: Cybersecurity Chicken Littlism edition

by on October 14, 2011 · 3 comments

In my ongoing work on technopanics, I’ve frequently noted how special interests create phantom fears and use “threat inflation” in an attempt to win attention and public contracts. In my next book, I have an entire chapter devoted to explaining how “fear sells” and I note how often companies and organizations incite fear to advance their own ends. Cybersecurity and child safety debates are littered with examples.

In their recent paper, “Loving the Cyber Bomb? The Dangers of Threat Inflation in Cybersecurity Policy,” my Mercatus Center colleagues Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins argued that “a cyber-industrial complex is emerging, much like the military-industrial complex of the Cold War.” As Stefan Savage, a Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, told The Economist magazine, the cybersecurity industry sometimes plays “fast and loose” with the numbers because it has an interest in “telling people that the sky is falling.” In a similar vein, many child safety advocacy organizations use technopanics to pressure policymakers to fund initiatives they create. [Sometimes I can get a bit snarky about this.]

That Economist story cites new research by scholars who are dispassionately evaluating the actual evidence and finding that data about cybercrime is often exaggerated and skewed in various ways, often by proponents of greater government regulation — as well as greater government funding for their companies or organizations. Again, we’ve seen this at work for many years in the child safety arena, too. In my book, I discuss the online “predator panic” that many child safety groups blew completely out of proportion in past years.

So, next time you hear such folks advocating increased government regs and funding, ask them what they personally have to gain from it.  Chances are, quite a lot.

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