Yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems

2013-03-04

Martin Lee

Symantec, UK
Editor: Helen Martin

Abstract

‘The collection of detailed statistics, their interpretation and analysis, combined with the desire to improve society, resolved many of the problems of the industrial revolution. The same approaches can be used today to end the high-risk work practices that leak data, to drive the adoption of best practices, and to provide the justification for investments in better security.’ Martin Lee, Symantec.


Table of contents

The effects of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries continue to be felt. Currently, we are experiencing another revolution: the information revolution. The connecting of data and computer systems throughout the world is having a profound effect on the way that we work and live our lives.

The industrial revolution brought many opportunities and benefits, but also certain negative effects that took decades to resolve. The information revolution also brings benefits, but it too has negative sides. However, by examining the past, and looking at how campaigners resolved so many problems, we may draw parallels to how many of our current issues might be addressed.

The cramped living conditions of the newly industrialized cities and poor working conditions had major effects on health. Epidemics afflicted entire communities; employees in certain professions died young, or developed unusual diseases – but few noticed these patterns, or considered why this was the case.

The outbreaks of cholera in London during the mid-19th century resulted in many deaths. Contamination of the water supply by sewage was the source, but many believed that the origin was ‘bad air’ (miasmas). Although this theory was incorrect, there was an awareness that the presence of sewage was linked with the disease [1]. Mortality data from official commissions illustrating the size of the issue could not be ignored, and political pressure grew until finally the construction of a sewer system was authorized [2]. Observation, investigation and the desire to change things led to an investment being made in deploying a long lasting solution to address the cause of the problem.

Occupational health hazards during the 19th century were numerous. To pick one in particular, workers making matches were prone to developing a disfiguring condition known as ‘phossy jaw’, in which the jaw bone would progressively degrade, leading to a painful death unless the affected tissue was surgically removed [3]. Professionals identified that workers were being exposed to toxic phosphorous fumes which caused the condition [4]. Tireless campaigning and technical advances led eventually to the banning of the toxic white phosphorous and its replacement with the relatively benign red form [5]. Again, observation and investigation, coupled with a desire to improve conditions, led to the issue being resolved.

The information revolution may well have more far reaching positive effects than the industrial revolution. There has certainly been less of an impact on human health – but this is not to say that there has not been an adverse impact on our wellbeing. Breaches of confidential information, personal losses due to phishing or banking malware all have human consequences. Similarly, DoS attacks, malware infections and the theft of intellectual property have financial consequences for our economy. ‘Data breaches’, ‘malware’, ‘cybercrime’, ‘cyber conflict’, etc. are all recently invented terms describing the new afflictions that the information revolution brings us.

As the informed professionals of the information revolution, we are overseeing the many advances that technological progress brings. We are also those who are most aware of the new afflictions of the 21st century, and as such we are best placed to collect data and to identify the root causes. The collection of detailed statistics, their interpretation and analysis, combined with the desire to improve society, resolved many of the problems of the industrial revolution. The same approaches can be used today to end the high-risk work practices that leak data, to drive the adoption of best practices, and to provide the justification for investments in better security.

Society does not need to accept malware infections and data breaches as a necessary cost of the information revolution. By looking to the past at how reformers recognized the nature of the problems they faced and the steps they took to reform and improve society, so today we can look at what we can do to remedy the issues that we face. History will thank us for it.

Bibliography

[1] Haliday, S. Death and miasma in Victorian London: an obstinate belief. British Medical Journal, Vol. 323(7327) (Dec 2001).

[2] Kearns, G. Private property and public health reform in England 1830–1870. Social Science & Medicine, Vol.26(1) (1988).

[3] Marx, R.E. Uncovering the Cause of ‘Phossy Jaw’ Circa 1858 to 1906: Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Closed Case Files – Case Closed. Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Vol.66(11) (Nov 2008).

[4] Wright, W.C. Case of Salivation and Diseased Jaw from the Fumes of Phosphorus. The Medical Times, Vol. 15 (377) (Dec 1846).

[5] Satre, L.J. After the Match Girls’ Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s. Victorian Studies, Vol. 26(1) (Autumn, 1982).

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