If McGruff can't handle this alone, who will be the lead dog?

We need to do a better job of educating folks about cyber threats and what each person can do

By Robert B. Dix Jr.

Robert B. Dix Jr. is vice president for government affairs at Juniper Networks. He previously served as the staff director for the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee. 

The challenge of protecting information and information systems is not new. What is new is that society is being impacted in a different and more sinister manner than ever before. As a result, we must now be thinking about unprecedented ways to protect ourselves and our information assets.

The problem is, many people have no idea how to protect themselves against these growing cyber threats, including identity theft — a consumer fraud and burgeoning underground criminal activity that is costing Americans billions of dollars a year. Loss of intellectual property and trade secrets threatens our economic security and even our national security.

It’s been estimated that as many as 80 percent of exploitable vulnerabilities would be mitigated with basic cybersecurity hygiene, such as patching, anti-virus updates, password management, and so on. These simple tasks do not require huge investments or large information technology staffs — but they do require greater awareness and education.

During last May’s historic speech on cybersecurity, President Barack Obama called for a national public awareness and education campaign as one of 10 short-term action items. Who will lead that effort? Who will be the public face that raises awareness for home users, small business, non-profits, and computer users of all ages to improve their cyber hygiene and raise the bar of protection for all of us?

History provides us with plenty of examples of failed efforts to legislate or regulate personal behavior — in fact, during my time on Capitol Hill, I saw many examples of a rush to legislation that produced unintended consequences, where the cure itself was often worse than the disease.

Instead, we need to do a better job of educating folks about cyber threats, risks, vulnerabilities and consequences — and most importantly, what each of us can do to improve our cybersecurity.

Over the years, we have relied on Smokey the Bear to help us learn how to prevent forest fires, McGruff the Crime Dog to raise our awareness about crime prevention and DARE to warn kids and parents about the dangers of drugs. The ongoing successes of Smokey, McGruff and DARE were achieved after children began to remind their parents of the basic crime and fire prevention tactics that these friendly but persuasive figures taught them.

With the continued leadership of the White House, and the help of a McGruff-like figure, we can forge a national campaign that includes our preschool, K–12 and higher education students; provides enhanced training and awareness for employees across the public and private sectors and recruits Internet service providers in a collaborative partnership that routinely reminds us all to better protect ourselves from cyber thieves and miscreants. The Homeland Security Department has made a good start with its National Cybersecurity Awareness campaign.

So as the president directed, let’s get to it. Hey, it might even put a little fun into cybersecurity for a change.

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