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CELEBRATE! profile: Joshua McGee '13

A senior political science major studies the evolution of Internet security and warns about the risks of responding to all cyber attacks with militaristic rhetoric.

Joshua McGee '13

The academic researchers who developed what we now know as the Internet didn’t have “security” in mind when they first started sharing files over a computer network four decades ago. Identity theft by computer? Viruses? Online infrastructure disruptions? They didn’t exist.

In many ways, security took a backseat to openness - making the transfer of information available to everyone - and operability. But as countries have made cyberspace a new domain in national defense, closer attention is being paid to the goals and rhetoric of the world’s largest superpower: the United States.

American officials in recent years have used military terminology when describing hostile actions against the online or networked presence of businesses, government agencies and media sites. The alternative that isn’t being used? Criminal and legal language.

“We’re taking a more security-oriented stance on all of this, and we’re responding to it through military means,” said Elon University senior Joshua McGee, a political science major from Raleigh, N.C., who has made cyber policy the focus of his Honors thesis this spring. “That’s not conducive to what we want the Internet to look like in the future.”

McGee’s recommendations have been shared twice this month - first at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and then on April 23 at the university’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum. His work is the last to be featured in a series of E-net story on students who are sharing their research and service work during Elon’s 2013 CELEBRATE! Week.

The U.S. government's four stated principles for the future of the Internet are: open, interoperable, secure and reliable. However, McGee said, using a militaristic response to online malice directed against American interests can quickly escalate tensions between nations.

Joshua McGee '13 presents his research on April 23, 2013, at Elon University's Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

Other countries, including several in Europe, are more open to viewing online malicious behavior through a law enforcement context. Online disruptions are primarily investigated by authorities and prosecuted by the courts. In the United States, it’s viewed through more of a security-oriented prism. “The Department of Defense said this has become a battleground,” McGee explained. “But there could be alternative responses where the potential for escalation does not exist. The stakes are so high.”

McGee said that when the Pentagon gets involved in a coordinated response to malicious behavior, the four stated goals are threatened. What he also proposes is to change those goals. “Cyber stability,” he argues, should be the top priority. The United States should refrain from offensive approaches to cyber warfare and be reactionary when confronted with imminent threats.

That doesn't mean cyber attacks should never be viewed through a military prism, he said. It's simply to say that the American government and, by extension, the American people must remain vigiliant about the way its military deploys cyber efforts and online "weapons."

McGee’s mentors praise his work and said his future in cybersecurity policy making is bright.

“What is extremely interesting about Joshua's honors project is that he combines a significant knowledge of computer systems with experience in the policy realm in Washington D.C., where he did two summer internships,” said Professor Laura Roselle, McGee’s thesis and undergraduate research mentor. “He also read extensively in international relations theory - including deterrence theory - and this informs his analysis of current U.S. policy.

“Joshua's project is well researched and insightful. I expect that he will work on these issues in the future and that is good because cybersecurity presents significant challenges requiring the nuanced understanding that Joshua brings to the subject.”

McGee will head to Washington, D.C., following Commencement in May. He plans to pursue opportunities within politics and policy-making with the intention of launching a career in crafting cyber policy.

CELEBRATE! is Elon University's annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. It runs this year from April 22-28.

Eric Townsend,
4/26/2013 8:00 AM