December 17, 2019

Common Technology and Cybersecurity Terms


  • The technological change that will take place over the next decade will touch every industry and affect the way we travel, communicate, work, and live.
  • This paper provides definitions and brief overviews of some common technology and cybersecurity terms that have significant public policy implications.

The technological change that is taking place and will take place over the next decade constitutes nothing short of a fourth industrial revolution. It will touch every industry and affect the way we travel, communicate, work, and live. Laws dealing with national defense, intellectual property, transportation, tax, health, privacy, and other areas will need to be updated or enacted to respond to the changing world.

Responding to the legal and ethical issues raised by these technologies will require a working understanding of some of the commonly used terms.

5G: The fifth generation of wireless networks currently being developed and deployed. 5G networks will be up to 100 times faster than current 4G networks, handle 100 times more connections, and allow near-instantaneous transmissions.

Algorithm: A step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing a goal. When a highway authority wants to charge different tolls based upon factors like demand, the computerized system will apply an algorithm to help it set the right toll for the conditions.

Artificial intelligence: A computer technology able to perform tasks normally requiring humanlike thinking. Potential uses include speech recognition and the decisions an autonomous vehicle has to make to drive safely around people and other cars.

Augmented reality: Technology that overlays digital information such as images and text on top of what users see in the real world. Potential uses include projecting a GPS display onto a car’s windshield so it can be seen more easily.

Back door: An additional way for someone other than the user to access a computer, service, system, or data.

Bandwidth: The maximum amount of data that can transfer from one location to another in a given time. A cable modem connection, for example, provides bandwidth that typically ranges between 25 and 100 megabytes per second.  

Biometric: Human characteristics like fingerprints, facial patterns, or voice that cannot be easily changed or imitated.

Blockchain: A technology that serves as a ledger for the secure transfer of digital assets such as currency without management by a central authority like a bank. Blockchain was invented by an anonymous person or persons using the name Satashi Nakamoto in 2008 to record transactions of the cryptocurrency bitcoin. Additional uses are being explored in fields like supply chain and logistics, news, energy, health care, and government.

Cloud computing: On-demand access to shared computer resources such as networks, servers, and data storage. It could mean storing records virtually rather than on the hard drive of an individual worker’s computer, while still allowing him to access the records from his desk. The federal government has announced a strategy for federal agencies to use the technology more widely.

Cryptocurrency: A form of currency that exists only digitally, usually with no centralized issuing or regulating authority. Cryptocurrencies use blockchain or other decentralized systems to record transactions and manage the issuance of new units of currency. Bitcoin is a prominent cryptocurrency. Facebook has proposed a model for a new cryptocurrency called Libra that would have a centralized regulatory and administrative body.

Dark web: Portion of the internet that is intentionally hidden from search engines, uses masked IP addresses, and is accessible only by using a special browser. The dark web is used by dissidents in oppressive regimes to share information and speak freely, but it is also used by criminals to buy and sell drugs, in human trafficking, and to share child pornography.

Data breach: Unauthorized release or loss of information meant to be secure, private, or otherwise restricted. Data breaches have exposed the personal data of hundreds of millions of people, putting them at risk of identity theft and other problems.

Encryption: Process of mathematically converting data to an unrecognizable form to enhance security. Only people with access to a decryption key or password can convert the data back to readable form. Attorney General Barr has advocated for manufacturers of devices like phones to enable back doors or other technological solutions in their products to give law enforcement access to encrypted data and communications. Some experts worry this would undermine cybersecurity and privacy rights.

Internet of things: The connected technologies and devices that sense, relay, and sometimes act on information and communicate to the internet and sometimes other devices and networks. It could be as simple as a smart lightbulb that can be turned on remotely through an app on a phone.

Machine learning: A subfield of artificial intelligence that involves computer programs and models that incorporate experience or data to improve their performance over time. A thermostat that gradually learns a family’s preferences and routines, for example.

Net neutrality: The principle that businesses owning the networks that provide access to the internet should not control how consumers use or access those networks. The internet has thrived under a bipartisan light-touch regulatory approach, without imposing net neutrality through outdated government regulations.

Quantum computing: A type of computing that relies on special properties of atoms and molecules to process information, potentially millions of times faster than today’s supercomputers. Quantum computers are being developed primarily in the U.S. by private business including IBM and Google. The Trump administration released a National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science in September 2018 to “create a visible, systematic, national approach to quantum information research and development.”

Ransomware: A type of malicious software that seizes and encrypts data on a computer or network. Once a criminal has taken control of the data, he demands payment to return access to the owner. If the ransom is paid, the victim gets a key to decrypt and restore the data. Restoration of the data is not guaranteed, because the victim is at the mercy of the criminal. Many cities, hospitals, and retailers hit by these attacks have paid the ransoms, which are almost always less than the cost of restoring the data.

Spectrum: Radio frequencies used to communicate over the airwaves. A limited public resource, commercial spectrum is managed by the Federal Communications Commission and can be auctioned to private companies, for example to provide mobile phone service or wireless internet access. It can also be licensed without auction to companies such as television broadcasters and public safety services.

Virtual reality: An artificial environment of computer-generated sights and sounds in which the user is fully immersed. The user’s actions can affect what happens in the artificial world, but nothing that happens affects the real world. These systems are used to train soldiers, doctors, and NFL quarterbacks.

Issue Tag: Technology