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Cyber Security

Gaycken: 'We're being plundered'

In its digital agenda, the German government has detailed its goals for improved data protection. The dream of a fully secure Internet, however, is an illusion, says IT expert Sandro Gaycken.

DW: One of the goals the German government has set in its digital agenda is increasing trust in the Internet. Do you think complete digital safety can be achieved?

Sandro Gaycken: At this point, definitely not. The Internet is inherently unsafe. At its inception, we simply didn't include a whole lot of factors that would have been needed to guarantee security. That list starts with computers but includes web mechanisms. Wanting to create security by spouting off a few nice words, and even wanting to become the safest nation in the world is illusionary. And so far, we haven't heard any more than these phrases.

What areas in digital communication are particularly sensitive?

That strongly depends on what societies want or don't want. Here in the West, industrial espionage is a big issue. We're being plundered on a daily basis in everything we produce: other countries or companies abroad establish competing productions based on the information they steal from us and build up markets for themselves.

The other big issue is definitely the extent of global surveillance, which we've seen with the NSA spying scandal. That's not only something coming from the US, but from many other countries, as well.

It has been suggested that users can do a lot themselves to bolster data protection: encrypting emails and installing anti-spy software, for example. Are we given a false impression here?

That's classic industry propaganda. The companies like to pretend everything is always the user's fault. But really, it should have been the industry's task to create information technologies in a way that no one can catastrophically misuse them in the first place. After all, that's expected from other technologies as well.

I wouldn't expect every passenger in an Airbus to be able to fly the plane in an emergency - but this is basically what the IT-industry tells us. It's important we distance ourselves from that: Even the most competent user can't keep up with everything that's thrown at us.

But are there - in theory - technological options to increase our computer systems' security?

A stream of symbols passing through a man's hand. (Photo: Fotolia/chanpipat)

With everything the average user does online, total security is hard to come by

There have been suggestions and projects for high-security IT for a while. These would have to be produced first, though. And all these things require a whole new kind of information technology and thus a completely new type of industry that would have to be built up. It's all about developing computers that are less vulnerable. And software could also change a lot.

It's actually been known for decades which measures are required. If these were consistently implemented, we'd have a substantial gain in security. With that, we could safeguard the Internet against almost everything, except perhaps highly qualified intelligence agencies. But this process would be very expensive. And it's contentious right now, because it's not what the current industry wants. That's why lobbyists always protest against such advances.

What measures should users take? Pull the plug and toss out their computers?

The single user can't do anything at all, anyway. Still, the average individual need not run scared. Cyber security is more of a problem for large corporations, banks, and of course in the issue of industrial espionage. It's also a big problem for citizens of totalitarian regimes that heavily use the Internet for surveillance. But the average everyday user in Germany doesn't have to fear such totalitarian measures from his government. He usually can't be virtually robbed either - at least small-time criminals are mostly contained online. But he does have to worry about his national economy, which is bleeding out through the backdoor.

Dr. Sandro Gaycken is a researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Computer Science at the Free University of Berlin. He calls himself a "tech-philosopher." In his book "Cyberwar," he describes the dangers of the Internet as a future theater of war. In addition to his research, Gayken advises a variety of security institutions in Germany and abroad, political committees on the national as well as the EU level and various companies.

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