Why We Should Wash Our Hands of "Cyber-Hygiene"

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 19 2013 11:37 AM

Why We Should Wash Our Hands of "Cyber-Hygiene"

Hygiene isn't the right metaphor for cybersecurity

Photo Illustration by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Apparently the Internet is a very dirty thing—one that requires you to wash up after using it. At least that’s the attitude of people calling for “cyber-hygiene.” For example, Ben Hammersley, the editor at large of Wired UK, recently wrote in the Guardian:

“The most important life skill we'll be teaching our children over the coming decades will be cyber-hygiene. Fighting infections in the 21st century is less about washing your hands and more about not clicking on untrusted email attachments Those of us who don't understand this will be shunned as digitally unclean.”

The Department of Defense has also adopted the term—which refers to having good cybersecurity habits to keep your computer free of malware—in its Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace report from 2011, which states, “Cyber hygiene must be practiced by everyone at all times. ... People are the Department’s first line of defense in sustaining good cyber hygiene and reducing insider threats.” And early this year Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urged citizens to use “good cyber-hygiene” lest they open themselves up to the hidden dangers of the Internet.


The idea of cyber-hygiene can be traced back to Vint Cerf, an early architect of the Internet and Google’s current “chief Internet evangelist,” who says he came up with the idea when thinking about teeth brushing, but, you know, for your computer.

Sounds reasonable, right? But the idea of “cyber-hygiene” is embedded with underlying assumptions of individual responsibility and control. That is, if you don’t practice digital cleanliness, then you have failed to be a good citizen—and perhaps you should be shamed for it. This is a wrong and shallow way to think about the topic, one that puts an undue onus on the individual. But even people who should know better can fall for a sophisticated spearphishing attack. Instead of blaming people if their computers get infected, we should instead ask what caused people to become victims, if they are indeed victims, in the first place.

Hygiene is often corollated with moral goodness, which levies a heavy burden on people. Rather than being a sign of bad character, poor hygiene—personal, cyber, or otherwise—might be an indicator of an unprivileged status because the person lacks, say, access to a washer and a hot bath or to expensive anti-virus software.

What’s more, if you take the historical perspective—something that is all too often avoided in conversations about technology—you’ll see that hygiene as a metaphor is wrapped up in some nasty episodes of the past. Take, for instance, the social hygiene movements that were started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Whitney Boesel and David Banks, both contributors to the blog Cyborgology, reminded me during a conversation about the topic, hygiene has been linked to a number of terrible methods of trying to clean up society. By latching onto the growth of public health science, hygiene served as the basis for marginalizing and locking away “dirty” women like prostitutes and those deemed “mentally deficient.”

Once you start making choices about who is unclean—in body or computer—then you’ve entered into troubled territory.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.