In the last ten years we have seen an explosion in the amount of structured data we produce through our everyday activities. All on-line activity, such as credit card payments, web searches and mobile phone calls, leaves a data exhaust, little puffs of evidence about our behaviour, what we do and how we think. This can now be stored, shared and analyzed, transforming it from meaningless numbers into life-changing tools.
Like it or not, we live in a world where personal information can be accessed at the click of a key on a massive scale. Although there are myriad benefits (medicine, education and the allocation of resources are obvious areas), there are also significant risks. The threat of cyber warfare is a good example. There is no turning back, so what does this mean for society going ahead? I believe that in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks over the next ten years we will have to fundamentally change our behaviours, our structures and our businesses.
Writing today, my real concern is that we haven’t yet got a clear understanding of the risks this new data-fuelled world brings and therefore even less about how to deal with them. That doesn’t mean we should over-react. Indeed the opposite: if we haven’t thought them through, we are more likely to over-react in some areas and under-prepare in others. We are obviously severely under-prepared against cyber-terrorism, as we see with the recent Sony debacle.
As an example of over-reaction, look at concerns about health data, which, in the main, can be addressed through the judicial use of sandbox technologies and severe penalties for misuse. Surely it is counterintuitive to miss out on the enormous social benefit of sharing health data because we haven’t thought properly about how to deal with potential risks? How do we exploit data knowledge to positive effect and what are the key challenges going forward?
The first big issue is how to keep the opportunities equal. I believe that all levels of society should benefit from the information data crunching can deliver. But just because the capability is there, it is not a guarantee that it will be shared unilaterally. Currently this is an area where new inequalities could grow, as well as existing equalities get worse. Data sharing and the science of getting value from data is obviously much more advanced in the advanced economies. It’s quite possible that these skills will be used to accelerate their own national well being, both commercial and social, leaving less technologically based societies behind. It would be wrong to assume that technology will be a leveler at all times. Yes, it has the potential, but the hope that it will have an equalizing effect is by no means assured.
There are obvious tensions between sharing, privacy and freedom. But we must be wary of erecting a virtual net curtain, hiding the voyeur and leaving the public vulnerable. Why shouldn’t youthful misdemeanors be left in the ether? I think they should. After all, we know that silly things sometimes happen – even to ourselves. The trick is for us all is to know and acknowledge what is public, and to act accordingly. Years ago, we lived in small communities. Our doors were unlocked and our neighbours knew our every move. It was considered normal. Our community is now global, but the principal remains the same. Some guidelines do need to be established if we are to maximize the social benefit of data; we must develop an agreement about what privacy really is in reality as well as in the virtual world. This will involve thinking afresh about the relationship between the citizen, governments, and corporations.
Understanding data ownership will become a bigger issue than it already is today. Consumers and end users will want to own and control their personal data, but this seemingly straightforward statement grows more difficult to achieve with each passing day. There isn’t much information that we can easily say belongs to just one person. Consider two people having a chat in a café. The content belongs to both of them; the fact of their meeting belongs to all who observe it. If I have a contagious disease, we don’t consider that information my personal property. When a doctor takes your temperature, does that information belong to you, the doctor or the hospital? Data is useful to everyone, so we must get used to sharing particularly as more and more of our lives becomes digitised and new issues arise. The challenge is to develop our ethical and legal apparatus for this, establishing a set of agreed principals and regulatory framework that can act as the basis
History is littered with evidence that shows how we consistently fail to identify the next big threat. The Greeks didn’t recognize the Trojan Horse; the Allies in the First World War weren’t initially concerned about aerial warfare. Similarly, I believe we are currently under-playing the potential impact of cyber-attack. As more control systems are connected to the web, more vulnerability will inevitably appear.
Cyber-security, which involves protecting both data and people, is facing multiple threats; cybercrime and online industrial espionage are growing rapidly. Last year, for example, over 800 million records were lost, mainly through cyber attacks. A recent estimate by the think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), puts the annual global cost of digital crime and intellectual property theft at $445 billion—a sum roughly equivalent to the GDP of a smallish, rich European country such as Austria.
Although the attacks on Target, eBay and Sony have recently raised the risk profile in boardrooms around the world, law enforcement authorities are only now grappling with the implications of a complex online threat that knows no national boundaries. Protection against hackers remains weak, and security software is continuously behind the curve. Wider concerns have been raised by revelations of mass surveillance by the state; a growing number of countries now see cyber space as a new stage for battle, and are actively recruiting hackers as cyber warriors. How to minimize this threat is key to all of our futures.