Nicolas Engel

Idea(ls) on cybersecurity

Why is cybersecurity so fascinating?

Few areas today carry as much mystery and fantasy as cybersecurity. Popularized by works such as Matrix or more recently Mr. Robot, computer security feeds a collective imagination in search of re-enchantment of reality. Man in his quest for omnipotence has never ceased to describe the unspeakable in order to replace the divine with the lights of knowledge. As natural phenomena were clarified and mysteries elucidated, the magic of Mother Nature disappeared as Marcel Gauchet describes it so well in his book “The disenchantment of the world”. Lightning, wind or water, once the prerogative of the gods, are now considered as simple sources of energy to illuminate our lives and reduce the darkness of our ignorance.

These sources of the divine have been replaced by Information, which now plays the role of the Grail. Its everyday craftsmen strive to facilitate its transmission through applications and terminals that are constantly evolving. Yet in this incessant quest for modernity, a thorny issue remains.

How information that has become multifaceted can be conveyed through tools that do not compromise it? How to preserve the integrity of this digital trust by guaranteeing the authenticity and confidentiality of messages?

Information only has value in the use we make of it and the trust we place in it. As such, social networks are based on the implicit postulate of showing only what we authorized ourselves to publish and not our whole digital identity. However, this identity includes a less attractive reality based on administrative data, bank statements and other Internet history with shameless — but ultimately very conventional — research. Destroying this digital trust means destroying the keystone that underpins the system. Engineers, the modern artisans of this exponential growth of data, strive daily to push the limits of the system with their tools built of the same material as the result of their labor — computer code.

Here lies all the beauty of this topic, managing to build modern masterpieces based on bricks that are themselves constantly evolving. Like a cathedral, whose architecture would never stop adapting to the uses of its devotees. The democratization of IT tools through more user-friendly and less disheartening terminals has made instantaneous needs a key factor in understanding usage. Smartphones have become indispensable to the majority of us. Determining whether the smartphone was a chosen or undergone evolution is a challenge. But our dependence on information is now a reality.

As a computer engineer, it took me a long time to realize that my first skill was to keep learning. Evolving at the pace of technology is a necessity, knowing that today’s certainties will be swept away by tomorrow’s ideas. In our daily activity, we are forced if not to introspect personally, at least to question ourselves in order to understand the limits of a solution or the inconsistencies of a logic that has become obsolete in an environment that never stopped to evolve. How many times has a critical need required the creation of a symphony whose code never resonated from its first note for lack of a last-minute contingency? Very often this code, which required a lot of imagination, will be replaced by a simple jingle that will meet the expectations of its users at the very least.

Understanding an application and the information it conveys — its data architecture — requires testing its possibilities and limitations. It is clear that the devil lies in the boundary between use and intention. At what point is it a question of testing the limits of an application or diverting its primary purpose? Computer science and more generally the sciences are studded with serendipitous inventions. Pretending that the primary intention systematically leads to the expected result is a chimera.

In a vision that is certainly romantic but close to reality, the hacker (whose primary meaning is the one who builds something with his axe) is above all a tester, a tester of new uses. Through a process often involving a measure of luck and chance, he strives to deconstruct (and not destroy) in order to reinvent a better solution.

Like a “Neo” in the movie “Matrix” which makes available pirated software offering new possibilities to the greatest number. Critical minds will argue its motivations above all pecuniary where the most dreamy among us, will retain the libertarian inspiration. The challenge of the established order carries within it a creative destruction that Schumpeter had linked from the very beginning to information technology.

The fascination for hacking is born from a tool that the majority of us use in our daily lives without recognizing its full potential. There is a kind of poetry in the hacker’s vision, an ability to re-enchant the everyday with the power of his imagination. It would be comfortable to remain in this illusion if not reality as always. Far from the ethical hackers who would fight the evil forces at night hooded in their sweatshirts, cyber security nowadays no longer corresponds to this romantic vision. The era of solitary geniuses existing on the bangs of our societies is now replaced by teams with implacable organization. Faced with the growing complexity of solutions and their technical and physical interconnections, professionals in the sector have been forced to adapt by specializing.

So why does IT security, a field reserved for these experts with their impermeable jargon continue to fascinate the general public?

In a world where rationalization and utilitarian logics have penetrated as far as the cultural sphere, the loss of meaning in the face of the omnipotence of the god of money is no longer questioned by political ideologies. The advent of China’s first world economy consecrated the death of socialism and the inexorable triumph of economics over altruistic ambitions. The zero and the one have definitively supplanted the myth of a peaceful cohabitation of the human species — first of all in its healthy state, since wars have as their only common denominator the prevalence of economic interests — but also with its external environment and especially its cradle, the Earth, which continues to be soiled by its children.

In this process of perpetual accumulation, in which no one and especially not our leaders seem to hold the reins, cybersecurity is the very real metaphor of the conflicts that are meshing our societies. Ignoring territorial or ethical logics, cyber-attacks reflect the violence of our societies and this willingness towards and against all to monopolize a share of wealth in an environment which, for lack of a harmonized global legislation, looks like for many ones of the last fronteer. The whole paradox of this field is to bring out the worst in human nature through blackmail and financial extortion as well as the best in its search to secure a virtual universe whose only limit is imagination. It is in this polarized environment where good and evil no longer obey the agreed definitions of our policed societies that the individual again becomes master of his own choices: obeying pre-established rules or charting his own course, such is the revolutionary proposal that computer piracy carries within it.

“At its origin, it is a need to resolve a perpetual tension. Finding the right balance between the search for freedom, dangerous and exhilarating and the search for truth, mysterious and ephemeral.”

Albert Camus

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