Campus | February 21, 2016 at 6:52 pm

Harvard at the Cyber Battlefront

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Image Source: Flickr/Cyber Cloud

In today’s world, a computer can easily become a weapon and cyberspace a battlefield as cyber security becomes a growing national concern. A breach in the government computer system in 2014, for instance, resulted in the leak of 21.5 million Americans’ personal information. The United States is facing what CIA director John Brennan calls the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the upcoming decade: cyber attacks.

In the past, when the United States has confronted national challenges, Harvard has upheld a tradition of fighting against the nation’s contemporary enemy. In the American Revolution, the Wadsworth House in the Harvard Yard lodged George Washington’s troops fighting against the British. A century later, over a hundred Harvard students fought for the Union during the Civil War. During the Cold War, Harvard was the home of politicians like Henry A. Kissinger who produced legendary foreign policies.

Now in the face of current cyber wars, the tradition of fighting against common enemies continues: Harvard, with its innovative inter-disciplinary approaches, has played a leading effort in defending the nation against malicious cyber attacks.

Past: Unknown Territory

In the 1970s, Harvard was connected to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the precursor of the Internet. Only a few people at the time—among them the famous cryptographer Robert Morris ’57—sensed the potential loopholes threatening network security. On the whole, Harvard, like almost all of its peer institutions, did not take on cyber security issues until much later. “This was the case at all ARPANET sites, so there was not much of a call to worry about cyber security until after 1983, when access was opened up to all members of the university community,” Scott Bradner, a senior technology consultant with Harvard, told the HPR in an email interview.

Before 2008, despite the ubiquitous use of the Internet, cyber attacks were rarely salient. “In 2001, the term ‘cyber security’ was not used widely, if at all,” recalled Deborah Housen-Couriel, MPA ’01, a cyber security consultant who crafted some of Israel’s cyber security policies. The cyber attacks that took place around 2008, however, became significantly more frequent and maliciously targeted. That year, an infected USB was inserted to a military laptop based in the Middle East, resulting in 14-month salvage by the Pentagon and the creation of the United States Cyber Command.

James Waldo, the Chief Technology Officer for Harvard University, observed a more serious trend of hacking: before 2008, cyber attacks were mostly a game between programmers, whereas starting from that year, “[hacking] stopped being recreational and it started being more of a business for criminal gangs,” he told the HPR.

When the nation became more alert to cyber attacks, Harvard underwent a transition as well. “The problems of cyber security and international relations drew less attention from defense and foreign policy analysts at Harvard until the last half dozen years,” Nye wrote in an email interview. As a result, he began working on cyber security specifically in that year, organizing informal bi-weekly lunch seminars attended by scholars from Harvard and M.I.T. at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which continue to this day.

“One immediately noticeable change [that took place at Harvard] is that there are multiple cybersecurity projects, both within Harvard and beyond,” Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told the HPR. Currently, both Belfer and Berkman hold cyber security projects, in which scholars develop case studies and present research papers in workshops and publications.

At other institutions, these projects are mostly internal efforts, whereas Harvard actively collaborates with other universities and plays a leading role in bringing cyber scholars from different schools. The Cyberscholars Working Group, founded at Harvard, brings researchers from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and MIT together on a forum. Another initiative, “Explorations in Cyber International Relations,” operates under the joint effort of Harvard and M.I.T.

Present: Fighting at the Frontline

The battle against cyber attacks is different from traditional wars—the enemies are anonymous and the players are diverse. Non-state actors such as terrorist groups or malicious individual hackers may be involved, contrasting with typical state-to-state conflicts. Traditional single-perspective war strategies are therefore no longer as effective, heightening the need for innovative methods. Harvard led this trend by embracing a multidisciplinary approach during the watershed period. The Berkman Center for Internet & Society, for instance, changed its research focus from legal issues at the law school to diversified issues as a university wide research hub. As Zittrain noted, “the problem [of cybersecurity] is one that requires multiple disciplines to understand.” In his opinion, knowledge from one field helps to identify weaknesses of another: while one intervention seems to be a promising cure from one perspective, it can be a showstopper for others. Many professors working on cybersecurity hold multiple appointments at different schools: Zittrain himself is appointed by Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Harvard is different from other schools because it contains multiple disciplines, unlike the cyber programs at Princeton or Johns Hopkins,” graduate student Jessica Zucker ’16, explained to the HPR.

A multidisciplinary approach is not just top-down, but also bottom-up: the hardest pushing force for the adoption of such approach came from the student body itself, according to Waldo. The results from Tech@HKS, a survey conducted in January 2015, vividly captured the complexity of multidisciplinary problem-solving. The HKS student body exhibited strong interests in learning about technology and its connection to policy. According to the survey, 87 percent of HKS students agree or strongly agree that technology is important to the future of their policy area and 64 percent of students are unsatisfied or extremely unsatisfied with opportunities to learn hard skills (coding, data analysis, etc.).

HKS responded to the revealed gap by offering several technology-related classes for the first time this spring semester, including “Technology, Security, and Conflict in the Cyber Age,” taught by Waldo. The first half of the class is devoted to technological details and the second half to public policy. “The idea behind the course was that you couldn’t really do effective policy in this area unless you understand what the technology is really doing,” Waldo told the HPR. Modern-day cyber security issues require policy-makers to understand the subject itself. HKS is striving towards the goal of nurturing capable policy makers by offering an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Necessarily, there are many challenges on the way towards this goal. One of them comes from a lack of understanding among different disciplines. It takes time for experts of one field to understand the language and perception of another. “For example, computer scientists may have a very different take on what privacy means than what lawyers may think what privacy means,” O’Brien noted. These difficulties, though inevitable, are not insurmountable, as the collaborations between schools strengthen.

Future: New Challenge, New Opportunity

As the nation devotes its efforts to fighting against cyber threats, a recent $15 million gift to HKS devoted to cyber security research at Belfer Center has again put Harvard into the spotlight. Harvard has carried on the tradition of defining the nation’s common enemy, now in a more inclusive and interdisciplinary fashion. The battles against cyber attacks are long and tough, but there is reason to foresee a promising future, especially given the observation that Harvard’s new generation of policymakers-to-be has exhibited a growing concern and attentiveness in this area.

Clearly, as many of the students step into the policy circle, they may embark on a journey into uncharted territories. This time, in the face of unprecedented challenges of cyber security, they will need to be equipped with not only characteristic resoluteness, but also innovative perspectives and multidisciplinary methodology. As Harvardians “Enter to grow in wisdom,” they will “Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind” facing the vicissitudes of our cyber world, in the same spirit that inspired their respectable predecessors.

Image source: Flickr/Cyber cloud

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