Centre for Internet & Society

The need for intervention in the cybersecurity imagery in media publications was realised during a brainstorming workshop that was conducted by CIS with illustrators, designers, and cybersecurity researchers.


Handbook concept, content and design by: Padmini Ray Murray and Paulanthony George

Blog post authored by: Saumyaa Naidu and Arindrajit Basu

With inputs from: Karan Saini

Edited by: Shweta Mohandas

Cybersecurity Visuals Media Handbook

The need for intervention in the cybersecurity imagery in media publications was realised during a brainstorming workshop that was conducted by CIS with illustrators, designers, and cybersecurity researchers. The details and learnings from the workshop can be read here. The discusisons led to the initiative of creating a media handbook in collaboration with the designers at Design Beku, and the researchers at CIS.

This handbook was conceived to be a concise guide for media publications to understand the specific concepts within cybersecurity and use it as a reference to create visuals that are more informative, relevant, and look beyond stereotypes. 

The limits of visibility and the need for relevant cybersecurity imagery

Due to the "limits of visibility" and relative complexity inherent in any representation of cybersecurity, objects and concepts in this field have no immediate visual representation. A Google Search of the term cybersecurity reveals padlocks, company logos, and lines of numbers indicating code-stereotypes that have very little with the substantive discourse prevailing in cybersecurity policy circles. This stereotype can be further understood by exploring the portrayal of a 'hacker' in the media, both in newspapers and popular culture.

Shires argues that a dominant association with ‘danger’ has made the hacker image a "rich repository of noir influences". Therefore, a hacker is usually depicted as a male figure in a dark-coloured hoodie, with no considerations of spatial, temporal, or cultural contexts.

Visuals influence various actors in any conflict. In traditional non-cyber domains, spatial representations of conflict often omit the blood and gore that is a core facet of reality, and therefore, in some ways ‘legitimize war.’ An impersonal, unrealistic depiction of cybersecurity threats vectors or substantive discussions have two key negatives. 

First, it re-entrenches the notion of cybersecurity as distant and undecipherable discourse that eludes the individual. This undermines the critical importance of the participatory nature of the process. The goal of decision-making around cybersecurity should focus on individuals feeling secure and not be driven by policy-makers who decide technical parameters without broader consultation..

Second, it undermines the concept being discussed in the news article. If the visual is accompanying an op-ed, often the visual serves as a trigger for comprehending the content of the op-ed. Presently, op-eds on the global agreements in cyberspace, attribution of cyber attacks, and ‘total surveillance’ by Pegasus are depicted very similarly. These over-simplifications are inaccurate and undermine the nuances of the substantive content in each case, thereby impacting negatively the influence that each piece can have on public awareness and on the state of cybersecurity discourse.

Realistic descriptions of cybersecurity enable a granular understanding of threat vectors. There is also a need for signalling that celebrates and encourages greater diversity in this space. Cybersecurity discourse globally remains dominated by experts who are white and male. Explicitly re-conceptualizing these visuals to celebrate a variety of identities could be a push for other countries and communities (especially in the Global South)

This would enable the hitherto ‘disregarded communities’ in global cybersecurity discourse to understand and participate in the policy-making process.Our design handbook aims to guide media-persons in facilitating these goals.

An initial design brief for the media handbook was arrived at through our conversations with the designers at Design Beku. It was decided that the handbook would be concise and use a lighter tone in terms of language and be more visual than textual. For greater access, a digital, interactive format was seen as the most suitable option. 

In order to scope the existing visuals, a sampling of cybersecurity coverage under different subjects in various media publications over the last one year was carried out. This included both global and Indian publications such as Livemint, Scroll, Tech Crunch, Motherboard - Vice, and the Economist. Research and op-eds by CIS researchers were also considered to broadly determine the most relevant subjects within cybersecurity.

The subjects selected based on the coverage were Cyberwarfare (Data Localisation), Cyber Attacks, Blockchain, Misinformation, Data Protection, Ethical Hacking, and Internet shutdowns. It was also gathered that there are several sub-topics within these subjects which would be indicated in the handbook. 

The structure of the handbook was detailed out further to include a panorama image comprising illustrations that would speak to all the selected subjects, and text to explain the intention and process of making these illustrations. The handbook would begin with introducing its purpose, and go on to describe the concepts within each illustration, along with recommendations for illustrators working on such images. It would also consist of the definitions for each cybersecurity concept being visualised. 

The handbook and accompanying illustrations were conceptualised and designed by Padmini Ray Murray and Paulanthony George from Design Beku. It was our great privilege to be a part of this process. We would also like to thank Karan Saini for his invaluable inputs that helped us commission this publication.

A draft of the handbook is hereby being published here. This would be followed by a final version which will be in the form of an interactive web platform for both desktop and mobile devices. 

We thank the Hewlett Foundation for funding this research.



While commissioning the research, we had deliberated upon a series of definitions that we felt would be useful for the designers in conceptualizing their illustrations. These are provided below, and will form a part of the final handbook described above.

Data Localisation

Data localisation can broadly be defined as 'any legal limitation on data moving globally and compelling it to remain locally’. These policies can take a variety of forms. This could include a specific requirement to locally store copies of data, local content production requirements, or imposing conditions on cross border data transfers that in effect act as a localization mandate.

Cyber Attacks/Warfare

Terms: Critical infrastructure, state-sponsored attackers, disruption and/or espionage, attribution, data leaks, bugs, zero days, misconfigurations

Cyber attacks are a hostile act using computer or related networks or systems, and intended to disrupt and/or destroy an adversary’s critical cyber systems, assets, or functions. The intended effects of cyber attack are not necessarily limited to the targeted computer systems or data themselves.


Terms: Crypto-currency, immutable infrastructure, node compromise

Blockchain is a list of records linked using cryptography. It relies on three core elements in order to function effectively-decentralization, proof of work consensus and practical immutability.


Terms: Propagation and spread, large-scale & inauthentic coordinated activities

The concerted spread of inaccurate information through one (or more) of four methods of propagation-doctored or manipulated primary information, genuine information shared in a false context,selective or misleading use of information and the misinterpretation of information.

Data Protection

Terms: Cryptographic protection, access controls, privacy

Data Protection is protection through legal means accorded to private data from misuse by private or state actors. It includes processes such as collection and dissemination of data and technology, the public perception and expectation of privacy, and the political and legal underpinnings surrounding that data. 

Ethical Hacking

Terms: Diverse representation, and normalization/de-otherization of an “ethical hacker”

The term implies an ethical responsibility on the part of the hacker which compels them to inform the maintainers of a particular system about any discovered security flaws or vulnerabilities. While the ethics of "ethical hacking" differ for each individual, ethical hackers traditionally practice their craft out of a moral imperative. Ethical hackers are also described as independent computer security professionals who evaluate the system’s security and report back to the owners with the vulnerabilities they found and instructions for how to remedy them.

Internet shutdowns

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.


The interactive version of the handbook can be accessed here. The print versions of the handbook can be accessed at: Single Scroll Printing, Tiled-Paste Printing.





The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of their individual authors. Unless the opposite is explicitly stated, or unless the opposite may be reasonably inferred, CIS does not subscribe to these views and opinions which belong to their individual authors. CIS does not accept any responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the views and opinions of these individual authors. For an official statement from CIS on a particular issue, please contact us directly.