The Big Idea

By David J. Smith

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Welcome to the blogsite of the new Potomac Institute Cyber Center! Our mission is to offer multi-disciplinary technology policy expertise, experience, analysis and exposure to the discussion and development of cyber security in the democratic countries. Cyber security is one of the pressing issues for US security and the security of all democratic countries. Indeed, General (Ret) Michael V. Hayden, USAF—former Director of both the CIA and NSA—told the prestigious Munich Security Conference last Sunday, “We have not internalized how really big a deal this is.”

The Potomac Institute is the country’s premier technology policy think tank, and that is important because the cyber challenge is not about technology, but technology policy. On this blogsite, we will share with you our thoughts about current cyber issues—and we hope to hear back from you. So let’s get started!

General Hayden’s remarks at the Munich conference were right on target. The Internet, he explained, was designed for efficiency, speed and movement of large volumes of data to a limited number of nodes that are known and trusted. Today, the number of users is virtually unlimited, many are unknown and many of them are untrustworthy. The result is the current cyber security challenge.

“Most of what is going on right now,” Hayden said, “is stealing stuff.” But the Stuxnet worm was a harbinger of things to come. Never mind that Hayden—and I—think that setting back the Iranian nuclear program was a good thing. The point is that a cyber weapon caused kinetic damage—1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility literally spun out of control. Hayden is correct—we understand that fact on one level, but as societies, we are yet to internalize its full meaning.

However, Hayden’s aim was not to reiterate that this is a really big deal. His core message was that the technology issues are hard but, in the General’s experience, the most difficult aspect is “the big idea.” Which past rules of behavior transfer to the new situation and which do not? One has to go back, Hayden said, to the European discovery of America to find a development so disruptive to existing behavior patterns as the Internet.

When people consider the threats, Hayden said, they see the cyber domain as a “zone of conflict,” and they want their government to do something about it. Then they reach for their smart phones to tell someone about it and their perception of the cyber domain morphs into a “zone of personal communication” in which they want minimal government interference.

That is a technology-induced social and political dilemma, not a technology dilemma. Hayden sees technology policy as the real challenge. “What is it you want your government to do,” he asked. And, “What is it you will permit your government to do in this new domain to protect you and your information while still protecting your privacy?” These are precisely the big ideas to which the Potomac Institute Cyber Center plans to contribute. Please have a look at our first offering, a blog by my colleague Damian Taylor.

You can see General Hayden’s remarks at


One thought on “The Big Idea

  1. Mr. Smith, right on target, your clarification of the dilemma; “technology-induced social and political dilemma, not a technology dilemma” is key. I’ve seen and continue to see repeated tunnel vision approaches of applying technology solutions to situations which involve other non-technology components. Four factors (political, social, technological and economic) are at the heart of the overall macro view of this and any domain. When undertaking future strategy, policy development and problem solving, the stakeholders involved must consider the other elements that feed into the dilemma.
    Many of the challenges we face are often shared across industry, agencies and national borders thus, collaboration becomes crucial vice problem-solving in a vacuum approach. Some issues involve an additional layer complexity as they transcend into more than one of the aforementioned factors. Using the federal government’s “Cloud First” initiative as an example, technology (cloud security, access latency, data availability, etc.), economic (reduction in IT capital expenditures) and social factors (resistance to change) are interwoven and thus cross-pollinate the influence towards such strategy.

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