The State of the Union and a “Fire Department” Approach to Cybersecurity

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, one can see the usual misconceptions about cybersecurity surface.  Considering I saw Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, lecture on campus at Georgetown the day before the speech, I already had the views of one of the most famous figures behind the internet fresh in my memory during Obama’s remarks.  Most importantly, I saw how one of Cerf’s core ideas in addressing cybersecurity might be achieved through a comparable approach to that of the manufacturing network Obama proposed during the State of the Union to encourage innovation in manufacturing.  Likewise, Cerf emphasizes accurate word choice in articulating policy suggestions for the internet, which is another important point to keep in mind in developing cybersecurity initiatives.

Vint Cerf, currently Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, did a spectacular job covering multiple issues surrounding the internet while returning to the overall theme and title of the talk: Internet at Risk.  The point that most intrigued me was his notion of a Cyber Fire Department, rather than a Cyber Police.  He began his discussion on cybersecurity by stating that President Obama was expected to make an announcement on cybersecurity in his State of the Union address.  But he explained how the perceived need for a Cyber Police is flawed in that, when there is a fire, one doesn’t call the police first; rather, he or she calls the Fire Department first to stop the fire, and if there are suspicions of arson afterward, that is when the police are contacted.  Similarly, a Cyber Fire Department would fix the immediate problem in addressing the security vulnerability at hand and not worry initially about the policing of the issue.  I thought this an interesting case study on how our use of language reflects current illusions about how we should maintain the internet.  Subtle phrases like “Cyber Police” catch on with little thought behind them, mirroring a lack of structured conversations.

I thought back to this when I watched President Obama’s State of the Union address last night.  He began his discussion of cybersecurity and his latest executive order on the topic by saying, “Now, we know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private emails.”  Considering that there is a big difference between white hat and black hat hackers, I thought this was a really poor “given” statement from which to base his remarks, at the very least in terms of the potentially misguided vocabulary it employs.  As such, it reminded me of Vint Cerf’s point that seemingly harmless, reductive phrases can have a big difference on public perceptions as well as policy proposals.

However, I thought President Obama’s State of the Union proposal to build a network of 15 state-of-the-art manufacturing hubs to promote innovation and education within manufacturing would be a great approach to develop the Cyber Fire Department that Vint Cerf contends is needed.  He began this part of the address with a description of the “first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio” and asserted that a network of such institutes would be the best way to inspire new ideas in the field (“Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address,” 2013).  The same model could be used to create a network of cybersecurity education facilities that would work toward realizing Cerf’s vision of a Cyber Fire Department.

Moreover, I thought that this model would provide a successful, open approach toward realizing a Cyber Department, one comparable to that of the ARPANET.  ARPANET, after all, was a similar network funded by the government through the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).  It was dedicated to resource sharing between various prestigious research universities as well as constructing a decentralized communications network that served as the basis of the modern day internet (Strickland, n.d.).

Overall, I found Obama’s stance on networks of innovation in his speech refreshing in comparison to last year’s State of the Union address.  In last year’s oration, he mentioned innovation seven times, but in a very broad sense, with statements like “innovation is what America has always been about” and a call to “[s]upport the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries”  (“Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address,” 2012).  In contrast, this year’s speech outlined a feasible approach to making innovation happen that can and should be extended toward addressing cybersecurity issues in the manner that Cerf proposes.


Works Cited

Cerf, V. (2013, Feb 11).  Internet at risk.  Address at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

Flaherty, A. (2013, Feb. 13).  “State of the Union: Obama’s Cybersecurity Plan.”  Retrieved from

Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address.  Retrieved from

Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address.  Retrieved from

Smith, G. (2013, Feb. 12).  “Obama’s Cybersecurity Order Weaker Than Previous Proposals.”  Retreived from

Strickland, J.  How ARPANET works.  Retrieved from

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer is a former CCT Graduate Student.