Compulsive Acts

A psychiatrist's tales of ritual and obsession.

Virtual Armageddon

The online freedom vs. security bargain

A colleague who is a professor at a big university was instructed not to take his laptop on a study abroad course he was teaching for fear he will bring back a virus that might compromise the school’s network. His university, like the New York Times, the State Department and even the White House, is a mighty electronic fortress that has been successfully hacked and now lives in paranoia about further infiltrations. Can most of us, then, ever feel secure about our computers and the information they contain?

An electronic doomsday—a “digital Pearl Harbor” as it has been called—where Internet-mediated communications and infrastructure break down under foreign attack, is increasingly a subject of concern. Although cyber warfare at the level of governments and nations may be a new concept, it is a logical extension of the personal cyber wars that break out all the time, so liberated are we online from that which, in normal life, maintains civility and promotes peace. One could draw a parallel between this state of Web mayhem and what seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the “state of nature”. According to Hobbes, left to their own instincts, humans are incapable of harmonious coexistence. They will compete fiercely, wage indiscriminate war, and live in constant mutual fear: “. . . there is . . . no culture . . . no knowledge on the face of the earth; . . . no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual . . . danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For Hobbes, the only way to avert bloody social collapse is to agree to a contract whereby everyone gives up some degree of freedom to a tough ruler in exchange for stability and protection. As he saw it, the alternative to strong rule is universal war and insecurity.

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There are similarities between Hobbes’ state of nature and the state of the World Wide Web today. More and more, it seems like the only way to build a secure Internet is to turn it into a gated community where members give up some cyber rights to a powerful gatekeeper to ensure Network survival. No longer can you log on whenever, wherever, and on whatever device you choose. No longer can you strike up a conversation with a stranger whose pinpoint location and identity have not been verified. No longer can you pretend you are somebody else. A Web master will stand guard at all times, making sure your individual cyber activities don’t open up the Internet to a lethal virus that can jeopardize it for everyone else. As we grow increasingly worried about our data, more of us will have no choice but to accept this seemingly unavoidable freedom-in-exchange-for-security bargain. We will give up some online anonymity and other privileges to keep malware, zombie attacks and phishing schemes at bay. By bringing out the state of nature in all of us, the Internet is forcing us to seek a Hobbesian solution to a Hobbesian crisis.

Dr. Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist and author based at Stanford University. His most recent book is Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.

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