An interview with Michael Chertoff, Member of the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism and a participant at the Summit on the Global Agendataking place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 18 – 20 November.

Airport security safeguards, which have now become routine, are aimed at detecting potential weapons. But what if an attack were to come in the form of a command typed into a laptop?

“The cyber threat is particularly worrisome,” says Michael Chertoff, the former US secretary of Homeland Security during a break from a brainstorming session at the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi.

Chertoff, who is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism, is far from alone in his concerns. Intensifying cyber threats ranked fourth out of the ten biggest trends for the coming year, according to the recently published Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014, which drew on the insights of 1,500 experts in 112 countries.

“They’ve already demonstrated you can hack into automobiles using OnStar GPS. More and more devices are wirelessly connected. Unless they’re properly protected, that creates a vulnerability,” says Chertoff, who is now chairman of his own security consultancy, the Chertoff Group.

The Global Agenda Council on Terrorism, like all the 86 Councils in a network whose areas of expertise range from advanced manufacturing to youth unemployment, are trying to identify 10 drivers of change that will transform their area of specialization in the next five years. Along with the Outlook survey, the brainstorming is a step in a larger process to develop recommendations for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014.

In Abu Dhabi, Chertoff is discussing how threats are evolving with other Members of the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism, including Nigel Inkster, director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Maleeha Lodhi of Pakistan’s Jang Group of Newspapers and Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Swedish National Defense College’s Centre for Asymetric Threat Studies.

Looking for game-changers

“The point of the exercise is not to simply address things that are already going on and projecting them forward, but to look at things that might change the game to a significant degree, either for good or for ill — to begin to avert the things that will change it for ill or promote the things that will change it for good,” Chertoff says.

“You want to refine it a little bit and pick a few things that are of most significance and figure out ways that you might collaborate to promote a development that would be a very good development from a game-changing standpoint,” he says, “and avert something that would be a very bad development from a game-changing stand point.”

But cyber security is far from the only thing on his mind. Chertoff is also concerned with the growing distrust people feel towards their governments.

“We face a crisis of authority issue where you feel people just don’t respect the idea of authority or law anymore,” he says. “Then you couple that with the fact that the technology continues to change in a way that exponentially increases the ability of small groups to do a lot of damage.”

Recent leaks about the US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance have further undermined that trust, he says.

“What it’s done is damage a lot of what we do to protect ourselves by presenting what we do for intelligence collection in a way that is in many respects misleading and designed not to reveal anything that’s illegal or banned but in order to embarrass people,” he says.

“The end result is an anarchic or anti-authoritarian impulse. The problem is that if we dismantle the organs of authority that protect us, all that’s left is people who want to kill you and they don’t really care what the rules are because they don’t follow the rules anyway,” he says. “It’s a little bit like disarming in the middle of a war. It’s not very smart.”

Author: Michael Chertoff is Co-Founder and Chairman of Chertoff Group and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism.

Image: A man is seen holding a telephone on an escalator REUTERS/Yuya Shino.

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