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Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science - Occasional Speaker: David Irvine

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Dr David Irvine AO


I am deeply honoured to have been awarded an honorary degree by Edith Cowan University and to be able to address such a fine group of scholars graduating today. 

The degrees you receive symbolise the achievement of academic excellence that equips you, through your personal effort and dedication, to contribute positively to the enrichment of our life and our society. And I refer not just to the Australian but to those graduating today who have come from many other parts of the world.

This notion of investing our knowledge into the advancement of the human experience has a special resonance in communities that are grappling to adapt to a world, the main characteristic of which is not constancy but constant change – and changing ever more rapidly.

Nowhere is this maelstrom of change more apparent than in the revolution that digital technology has brought to our lives.  This is particularly evident to a person like me who grew up in the Dark Ages of heavy black Bakelite telephones, some which can still be found in antique shops, and whose first computer thirty years ago had a magnificent 64 kilobytes of memory.  Today my doorbell seems to have more memory than that.

How quickly has the mode and content of social intercourse been transformed by digital Information Technology - with the accumulation of Bulk Data and the tidal wave of social media available to everyone who can afford what we now simply call a “device”!  We can Blog, we can Twitter, we can Google (which is a great blessing for Trival Pursuiters and the forgetful elderly such as myself), we can share our innermost musings on Facebook; contribute eagerly to LinkedIn in the hope of job preferment; we can wave a card or a cell-phone just to pay a bill; and, while money still does not grow out of trees, we have long been able to extract cash from a hole in the wall.

It is not just instant cash.  We now have instant access to information and ideas; though not necessarily instant access to wisdom – that takes greater discernment.  And we have an instant ability to post our own contributions to the world’s store of information – although, again, not necessarily to its collective wisdom.

I use the term “Democratisation of Information” to describe this phenomenon.   We should welcome the propagation of innovative views and ideas through the democratising medium of the Internet, the expression of opinion soundly based, uncensored by this or that government – or even newspaper editor.  That is what democracy should be about. 

However, this “Democratisation of Information” has arrived as a mass phenomenon with such speed and decisiveness that it has taken us some time to appreciate what is called in the US intelligence community the “blow-back effect”. 

With every great advance come often-predicable side effects that are not fully understood until their adverse consequences are felt on a wide scale.  (There are many who would argue that the most obvious current example of “blow-back” is in fact global warming.)  In embracing the digital revolution - for we have no other choice - we must be conscious of and learn to manage the adverse consequences of digital blow-back – the vulnerabilities the advance of information technology has created. 

For example, the explosion of raw or “outrageous” views in the “blogosphere” from one extreme to the other can have significant downsides.  We are currently witnessing how the Internet been used to reach over the heads of traditional family, community or religious leaders to radicalise young Australians into supporting one of the more horrific derogations from common humanity we have seen in recent times.  The thought of a religiously-inspired Islamist regime in the style of Pol Pot in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, but ultimately aiming to dominate our societies with what my Islamic friends describe as a perverted and authoritarian interpretation of Islam, should indeed make us tremble.

Adoption of Internet control policies to filter out content deemed malevolent, as is attempted in China or North Korea, is unlikely to be truly effective in a democratic society such as ours.  No sooner is one malevolent website neutralised than another pops up in its place.  It is difficult to regulate or control the transnational Internet simply by national government decree.  It may ultimately be more effective, for example, for the mainstream Islamic community to use the Internet proactively to counter-punch against the Islamist terrorist phenomenon.

Another significance element of “blow-back” has been the way in which the digital revolution and the accumulation of mass data has pulled the concept of personal, professional and commercial privacy in two opposing directions. 

On the one hand, we have a generation who seem to have no qualms about committing their innermost personalities and secrets to the vagaries of the un-erasable Internet.  At the very least, consciously or unconsciously, we allow our web-browser providers (or even our local supermarkets) to monitor our individual web-surfing and purchasing practices, the better to target us for their commercial advantage. 

One the other hand, we are very wary of even democratically elected governments monitoring a nano-percentage of our communications in order to protect the community, save lives or solve major crimes –even when that is under a strictly controlled legal regime.

Our concern must be for the misuse of our Internet data.  Almost forty five years ago - in the Dark Ages of 1969 - in his Boyer Lecture series for the ABC, Sir Zelman Cowen with great prescience warned that the aggregation in the hands of second or third parties of large volumes of personal digital data represented a threat to privacy, and opened the way for potential malicious misuse. 

The commitment of national secrets to digital data bases and the use of the Internet to manage our key infrastructure, including for example our social welfare and taxation or our essential services infrastructure, have created potential vulnerabilities that may be exploited by foreign states, creating an additional burden on our governments to protect our secrets, our war-fighting capacities and or general livelihoods.  To address this problem, the Australian Government has recently created an Australian Computer Security Control Centre, a cross-disciplinary computer security monitoring and advisory capability that will also reach out to elements of critical infrastructure and the general public.

But the tools that are available to nation states to conduct espionage or sabotage are also freely available to non-state actors, unencumbered by the disciplines of a normal state. 

  • Organised crime sees opportunities to exploit large data bases of commercial and personal information, including credit cards and bank accounts, for criminal gain. 
  • The theft of intellectual property by both state and non-state actors remains a major concern. 
  • We are increasingly aware of the activities of hackers, spammers and phishers to take over our personal computers or our personal or commercial websites and to use them for malicious purposes, sometimes merely for political protest.
  • There is growing pressure on commercial concerns, academic institutions and non-governmental organisations, large and small, national and transnational, to protect client information from theft and malicious exploitation.  The legal consequences of failure of duty of care to protect such information may increasingly preoccupy our courts and affect the commercial bottom line.

Sir Zelman Cowen in 1969 forecast the need for more precise laws for the protection of private information, while acknowledging that national security requirements may justify the Government having access to private information on a strictly controlled basis.  Laws to regulate Government access have been in place for many years, with the need to update them regularly to keep pace with new technologies.

But it is more than privacy laws (and government exceptions to those laws) that are required.

Of course governments can make laws decreeing certain uses of the Internet illegal, such as the interception of communications without a warrant, or for the purposes of committing a crime, but the real challenge is two-fold:

  • To develop greater user awareness of the ways in which our Internet activities and our reliance on the Internet can be exploited; better to identify trusted suppliers and interlocutors – the people to whom we can safely entrust our personal information; and
  • to develop technology that enables the IT and telecommunications service providers or commercial enterprises better to protect the information entrusted to them by their customers. (They have both an obligation and an interest in doing so, in part to avoid the raft of class actions that seem to be just around the corner in our increasingly litigious society).
  • I believe our universities and research institutes have a major role to play in the development of technology for and the promotion of the safer use of digital data.

I am very proud to be associated with the Australian Computer Security Research Institute, operating out of Edith Cowan University in cooperation with some other Australian universities and with the private sector; aimed at sponsoring academic research into computer security that is better aligned to the needs of businesses managing and protecting large data bases containing your and my personal information. 

This idea of computer security is but one field of necessary endeavour to which today’s graduates of Edith Cowan University can aspire.  There are many others.  The key point is that, as graduates privileged with enhanced knowledge and skills, we should use that knowledge and those skills for the betterment and enrichment of the lives of our fellow human beings – solving the problems, the “blow-backs”, that we and the Doctrine of Progress have created in the march of Humankind. 

I heartily congratulate you graduates of Edith Cowan University on your well-earned achievements which we are recognising today.  There is so much opportunity, so many fields to be conquered.  I wish you every success in putting those achievements to good use, to the greater benefit for you personally and for the communities you serve.

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