Into the wild: exploring the connection between sustainability and cybersecurity

Doomsday Clock’s verdict for 2020 was closer than ever due to increased threats of sustainability and cybersecurity.
Fluctuations of the Doomsday Clock since its creation in 1947. Image source

Twin forerunners of progress

Both cybersecurity and sustainability are recent societal developments, stemming from the need for social and economic progress. Simultaneously, both sustainability and cybersecurity are studies of complex dynamic systems. Such understanding allows for transporting knowledge from one domain to another for mutual enhancement. Although very different, both climate change and the recent emergence of robust cyberspace have adjacent anthropogenic risks. Yet while the ongoing digital transformation is fast-paced and extensive, the developments in the field of sustainability are lagging. In this particular case, it can be that increased digitization can support an improvement in the state of sustainability.

Sustainability in increased digitization

In a digitally enhanced world that we’re slowly reaching, security risks are associated with both increased automation and increased climate threats. Today, the most prominent example of an automated system is critical infrastructure (CI), especially the energy sector — oil, gas, electricity, and nuclear. CI needs protection from both increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions as well as from cyberthreats. The synergy between the two threats makes CI increasingly vulnerable to risks, and any break in continuity may result in severe fallout. That hurricanes or floods can bring energy supply to a halt and even create electrical dangers is well-known. The less popular news is that in 2015, a Russian cyber-attack on Ukraine’s energy grid left 225,000 people without electricity by remotely obstructing the functioning of three power plants — a case not so isolated and likely to increase in frequency.

System mapping of crucial information networks is a key point in enhancing both sustainability and cybersecurity.
The SiD Mountain is an accessible starting point for system mapping. Find out more at thinksid.org

Cybersecurity’s need for sustainability

Now that we tackled what increased digitization and cybersecurity can support sustainability with, it is time to reverse the question. What can sustainability do for cybersecurity? We’re not talking just about cybersecurity companies committing to sustainability, but rather about ways in which the support becomes mutual.

The challenges in the ‘ahead’

While the marriage between protected automation and sustainability can bring many benefits for the planet and its inhabitants, it also runs into the risk of deepening the existing wealth gap. “Sustainability” also includes social equality or lack thereof. Digitizing infrastructure can reflect rather poorly on this measure. Digitization and cybersecurity are expensive endeavors that require a state-of-the-art level of research — this is visible, for example, in the quest for a powerful quantum computer that would be able to effortlessly crack most of the common cybersecurity measures. Therefore, only actors with considerable funds will be able to participate in the race towards optimization or simply enhanced protection. As a result, a technological rift can increase the financial gap between countries and corporations that can afford to invest in the development and protection of their digital infrastructure and those that can’t — a true peril to social harmony and justice.

Sources & further reading

“Doomsday Clock 2020: Closer than ever”

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Except Integrated Sustainability

Except Integrated Sustainability

A multidisciplinary team that creates better futures by applying systems thinking to solve complex sustainability challenges.