Most of you, I imagine, will agree that unlawful cyber hacking is bad. There are growing concerns on cybersecurity and privacy all over the world. Organizations like IBM, Blackberry, Tor Project and Guardian Project, among numerous others, already allocate some of their best resources towards cybersecurity and privacy solutions. However, a cybersecurity or a privacy approach is simply ineffective when it comes to addressing our real concern with digitization and hyper-connectivity – a breakdown of social accountability.
Most of us live in societies where politics, religion and media play the roles necessary to ensure adherence to acceptable social frameworks and maintain harmony. However, the pace of growth of information and communication technologies has overwhelmed the traditional pillars of our social order. We need Socio-Tech frameworks that ensure social accountability and ensure that human destiny is in the hands of humans NOT algorithms.
Limits of a Cybersecurity Approach
Practitioners and innovators in civilian sectors do not normally think in terms of security. Security is usually a function assigned to governments with clearly defined jurisdictions. Generally speaking, we expect our nation’s internal security agencies to uphold law and order within our national boundaries and our military to deal with external adversaries. There are no effective laws and regulations in the cyber world and it transcends national borders. The reality is that most governments are helpless when it comes to dealing with cybersecurity.
In the name of better understanding, serving and even protecting us, the cyber world has unleashed increasingly sophisticated methods for data gathering, analytics and user applications. Here is a scenario on Google and its capabilities:
Day before yesterday – tracks your moves and knows you better than your spouse
Yesterday – predicts your next moves and knows you better than you know yourself
Today – automatically tailors your personal, social and professional world for you
Tomorrow? – automatically designs an entire life from the time of birth (or even before that!)
Regarding Facebook, while our society is still trying to wrap its head around unlimited and lightning fast circulation of our pictures, posts and feelings, it is reportedly making moves to make telepathy a reality – potentially the ultimate privacy nightmare!
The need for Socio-Tech Accountability
The question is not how far-fetched are these ideas. It is whether we, as a society, should let it happen without accountability. I am not suggesting that companies driving our digital world are doing so to deliberately harm society. Having lived in Silicon Valley and been inside the headquarters of Google and Facebook, I have no doubt they hire some of the best and brightest minds from all over the world to move mankind forward in the right direction. The real issue is that our social frameworks have not been able to catch up with technological advances. Largest cyber firms on our planet are headquartered in the US and yet a strong argument could be made that the most vulnerable nation in the digital world is the United States of America.
In early 2016, when cybersecurity “Guru” Bruce Schneier was asked what would it take for us to seriously start addressing our cyber issues, he said that a catastrophic failure of US healthcare, transportation or voting systems may provide a wake up call. Less than a year later, amid widespread speculation that 2016 US Presidential Election was manipulated through cyber means, he pointed out that there are no clear guidelines on what to do if in-fact the election was hacked. Whether it was foreign meddling or a coup orchestrated with help from elements within the US Military and Corporate America, it is hard to fathom the possibility that the mighty United States failed to defend the integrity of its own democracy.
It is no longer about cybersecurity and privacy, but the reality that unprecedented power to control individuals and societies is being placed at the hands of software programmers. Not too long ago, terrorists hijacked planes or blew themselves up to further their ideology. Today, cyber “activists” in Beer-Sheva, Israel or Christchurch, New Zealand could access sensitive data, decode algorithms and release well-tailored information on “free” digital platforms to much more effectively further their ideology against the free will of our society.
The most striking part of publically available declassified report from US Intelligence Community on the election meddling was the amount of focus on the media platform RT and its methods. Let me highlight this line from the report: “RT is making its social media operations a top priority, both to avoid broadcast TV regulations and to expand its overall audience.” The irony here is that Silicon Valley startups have been hugely rewarded when they come up with “innovative ways” to avoid regulations and expand user base globally. Had Stanford graduates built a new age media platform that made CNN and BBC World look outdated, they may have been the toast of California!
The US founding fathers took great measures to have checks and balances on the concentration of power in the hands of an elected President. Who is looking at ensuring checks and balances against concentration of global power in the hands of tech companies, techies or worse – algorithms that take a life of their own? This is a social issue that cybersecurity alone cannot address.
In order to find effective solutions, we need to first articulate and create widespread social awareness on the actual problem. Time to act was yesterday, please wake up society!