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Toward a Human-Centric Approach to Cybersecurity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2018


A “national security–centric” approach currently dominates cybersecurity policies and practices. Derived from a realist theory of world politics in which states compete with each other for survival and relative advantage, the principal cybersecurity threats are conceived as those affecting sovereign states, such as damage to critical infrastructure within their territorial jurisdictions. As part of a roundtable on “Competing Visions for Cyberspace,” this essay presents an alternative approach to cybersecurity that is derived from the tradition of “human security.” Rather than prioritizing territorial sovereignty, this approach prioritizes the individual, and views networks as part of the essential foundation for the modern exercise of human rights, such as access to information, freedom of thought, and freedom of association. The foundational elements of a human-centric approach to cybersecurity are outlined and contrasted with the prevailing trends around national security–centric practices. A human-centric approach strives for indivisible network security on a planetary scale for the widest possible scope of human experience, and seeks to ensure that such principles are vigorously monitored and defended by multiple and overlapping forms of independent oversight and review.

Roundtable: Competing Visions for Cyberspace
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2018 

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I am grateful to Tim Maurer, Duncan Hollis, the editors of Ethics & International Affairs, Christopher Parsons, Cynthia Kloo, Lex Gill, Irene Poetranto, and Adam Molnar for helpful comments, and to Liz Gross for research assistance.



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2 Yet another approach to cybersecurity that contrasts with both national security and human-centric approaches is one that is focused around corporate security and the maximization of profits, with a company's intellectual property and the unfettered flow of financial information being the object of security. I outlined this paradigm of cybersecurity in a 2002 chapter entitled Circuits of Power: Security in the Internet Environment,” in Rosenau, James and Singh, J. P., eds., Information Technologies and Global Politics: The Changing Scope of Power and Governance (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2002), pp. 115–42Google Scholar.” For brevity, I focus here mostly on the contrast between national security and human-centric approaches.

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18 Chris Duckett, “Encryption Leaves Authorities ‘Not in a Good Place’: Former US Intelligence Chief,” ZDNet, June 7, 2017,; and Don Reisinger, “James Comey on Apple and Google's Data Encryption: They ‘Drove Me Crazy,’” Fortune, April 16, 2018,

19 Fred Cate and Jon Eisenberg, “NAS Report: A New Light in the Debate over Government Access to Encrypted Content,” Lawfare (blog), February 15, 2018,; and David Ruiz, “There Is No Middle Ground on Encryption,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, May 2, 2018,

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25 Maria Gurova, “The Proposed ‘Digital Geneva’ Convention: Towards an Inclusive Public-Private Agreement on Cyberspace?” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, July 2017,

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31 That the university will remain a free space for such inquiries is hardly guaranteed, as both commercial and national security interests continuously present threats to academic freedom, and these are, arguably, growing.