Future Shocks Information Security

'We got lazy. We dropped our guard.' -- former Secretary of Defense William Cohen to IT executives in Pennsylvania

by / November 4, 2004
Events speed up time and that is what has happened to our world ever since 9/11, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told a gathering of federal IT executives in Hershey Pa., this week. "We live in the world of future shock," he said, referring to Alvin Toffler's classic book. "Events are coming at us at an accelerated speed," he warned.

Cohen, CEO of the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm, said we live in an era that is unprecedented. "We know one thing: information is power. The problem is that we have too many stovepipes in our national security system. Information is not coming through and being communicated from the field agents to the top," he said.

Speaking at the Executive Leadership Conference, Cohen said the attacks of 9/11 occurred because "we got lazy. We dropped our guard." He added that the current information security system is broken and needs to be fixed.

Depending on how you look at the battle between modern democracy and those who oppose it, Cohen said the glass is either half empty or half full. On the one hand NATO has grown from 16 members to 26, while the entire South American continent is almost entirely democratic, though some countries are in a fragile state and Cuba remains as the lone communist dictatorship, he noted. "But on the other hand, a clash between cultures and civilizations is occurring," he continued.

Cohen pointed out the need for a national security system that stands on three legs that "deter, defend and defeat" our enemies. However, deterrence doesn't work against terrorism and we can't play defense all the time in the struggle against terrorists. "We live in a world where terror and technology have merged," he pointed out.

To defeat our enemies, Cohen called for the United States to expand how it shares critical information with its allies. "We must share information on a global basis," he urged. "Information must travel vertically and horizontally to be effective." However, Cohen acknowledged that a legitimate debate is under way on just how we should share sensitive information both in the U.S. and on a global scale.

Cohen said he believes we need a new information network that can distribute information to the right people rapidly. But the unanswered question is whether we deploy new technologies to protect ourselves with whatever means are at our disposal. "How much are we willing to give up to have security?" he asked.

Cohen illustrated his point by describing a recent demonstration of a new security system. When Cohen's Social Security Number was entered into the system, it pulled up a list of all the addresses where Cohen had lived throughout his adult life and another list of all the neighbors who lived next to him at each location. Some would view such a tool as a gross invasion of privacy while others might see a solution to finding hidden enemies.

Despite the current fears, Cohen closed on an optimistic note, reminding his audience the value of staying in touch with the rest of the world and other cultures. "It was Mark Twain who told us that 'travel makes narrow-mindedness impossible."