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What Cybersecurity Really Means

As more activities move online, our understanding of cybersecurity must evolve to stay ahead of emerging threats to public health and security

When we talk about cybersecurity, we usually think of commercial antivirus software, ransomware attacks on large corporations, or leaks of politically scandalous emails. But little is said about public security in the digital realm, and that is a big problem when we increasingly depend on information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet of Things to carry out our ordinary daily activities.

Moreover, these technologies’ rapid development has led to a hybridization of crime. Many illicit activities now straddle the physical and virtual worlds, which has introduced new trade-offs and calls for a reconsideration of longstanding lawenforcement strategies.

Consider illegal recreational substances. Many people now seek to acquire these over the internet, because buying online is generally seen as safer than meeting a stranger in a dark alley. But online channels tend to put people into direct contact with the organized crime groups that control most of the distribution of illicit substances. When people hand over money to these groups, they are unwittingly helping to fund the global networks that also finance terrorism and traffic in arms, people, and human organs and tissues.

It is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many forms of digital innovation and adaptability, and online drug purchases are no exception.

There are both risks and potential benefits associated with these new distribution channels. Transacting on crypto markets or through similar digital channels can protect individual users from physical violence, theft, sexual exploitation, and abduction.

Governments and law-enforcement authorities should keep these findings in mind as they seek to create safe public spaces online. While the state alone is responsible for defining what counts as a crime, policing criminal activity is not its sole purpose; it also must ensure public health and uphold fundamental rights such as privacy.

Accordingly, many law-enforcement strategies should be reconsidered, and resources should be redirected toward strengthening the competencies of nascent cybercrime units. Investigative efforts should focus primarily on ICT-mediated criminal activities and operations that pose a significant threat to the general public.

But, owing to the hybrid nature of these forms of cybercrime, effective implementation of new law-enforcement strategies will require international coordination. The United Nations has formed an ad hoc committee to draft a “Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes.” But to ensure public security in cyberspace, the convention will need to couple improved law-enforcement procedures with the kind of humanitarian vision that underpins deflection.

As the world increasingly moves online, we must recognize that cybersecurity is about more than preventing hacks and fraud. It is also about improving the safety, health, and well-being of the people behind the screens.

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