Leading expert in cybersecurity David Hickton is warning us that the internet could dismantle democracy. Mr. Hickton, founding Director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security and former United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, will discuss the issue in a lecture this week at the University of Pittsburgh. The “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” lecture, hosted by the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy at Pitt, will ask the question: Is the internet a force for freedom or for oppression? When his children began instant messaging online, Mr. Hickton realized the internet was an open environment, without sufficient rules or security. “[The cyber world] is designed to make our lives better,” said Mr. Hickton. “But … it’s not coincidental that in some places around the world, digital space is being used to make people less free.”
Some leaders — like President Donald Trump — use digital communication in order to bypass existing institutions, Mr. Hickton said.
In other cases, though, Mr. Hickton said the internet aids democracy. Social media has enabled the rise of popular movements like #metoo, made possible events like the Women’s March and helped political candidates grassroots organize and fund-raise.
Mr. Hickton has been a pioneer in the cyber security field, said former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, director of the Dick Thornburgh Forum and chair of the Institute of Politics at Pitt.
As a former U.S. Attorney, Mr. Hickton brought the first indictment against a foreign government for hacking. In the case, five members of the Chinese military were accused of hacking into and spying on the economic secrets of Pittsburgh-based companies. Hickton’s office also prosecuted similar key cases such as the one against Russian cybercriminal Evgeniy Bogachev during his tenure from 2010 to 2016.
After working in government, Mr. Hickton founded Pitt Cyber at the university in 2017. The institute brings together experts in law, policy, computer science and other disciplines to answer today’s biggest cybersecurity questions, from how to regulate hate speech online to how to protect elections.
In 2018, Pitt Cyber took on the issue of voting security, and launched The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security to look into potential vulnerabilities in Pennsylvania’s election infrastructure.
Mr. Hickton’s talk will outline possible solutions to the internet’s threat to democracy, and will emphasize the need for government policy to regulate the fast-changing cyber sphere.
“We … have to decide whether or not we want to regulate this area to make it a force for the good,” Mr. Hickton said.
Mr. Hickton said everyone — not just policy makers — can play a role making sure the internet “enhances freedom” rather than becoming “a tool of despots.”
Mr. Hickton’s lecture will outline a chapter he wrote for the book “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” to be published in March.
For Mr. Nordenberg, the Thornburgh Forum is about “evidence-based decision-making” through “civil discussion,” in this case, discussion around technology.
“I hope that [the lecture] makes people more aware of the threats that new technologies pose to fundamental principles of democratic government in this country so that they will be attentive to proposals to protect our elections from any kind of intrusions,” Mr. Nordenberg said.
The lecture is one of three lectures this year in The Discussions on Governance Lecture Series, a part of the greater The Thornburgh Family Lecture Series in Disability Law and Policy at Pitt.
“Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” will take place from noon to 1 p.m. on Feb. 25 in the University Club Ballroom B at Pitt. The lecture is free and open to the public. Those interested should register here.