Privacy, transparency, and increasing digital trust

There is a crisis of trust in American democracy.” So begins a new report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy organized by the Aspen Institute. It lays blame on our political discourse, racial tensions, and technology that gives us all more access to more commentary and news. “In 2018, unwelcome facts are labeled as fake.”

Part of the problem with trust has to do with the ease of cyber-criminals to ply their trade. Once relegated to a dark corner of the Internet, now many criminals operate in the public view, selling various pieces of technology such as ready-made phishing kits to seed infections, carders to collect credit card numbers, botnets and web stressors to deliver DDoS attacks, and other malware construction kits that require little to no technical expertise beyond clicking a few buttons on a web form. A new report from CheckPoint shows that anyone who is willing to pay can easily obtain all of these tools. We truly have witnessed the growth of the “Malware-as-a-service” industry.

This week I was in London participating in a forum for the Euro press put on by RSA. I got a chance to interview numerous experts who have spent their careers examining cybercrime and understanding how to combat fraud. It was a somewhat sobering picture, to be sure. At the forum, RSA’s president Rohit Ghai spoke about how the largest facet of risk today is digital risk, and how businesses need to better integrate risk management and cyber security methods. “This is a team sport, and security, IT, operations and risk groups all need to work together,” he said. “Our goal is not just about protecting apps or data, but about protecting our trust assets. We trust strangers to share our homes and cars because tech brings us together and drives the sharing economy.” We need to replace this trust system in the B2B world as Airbnb and Lyft have done for consumer-based businesses.

Ghai agrees with the conclusions of the Knight report that trust is at an all-time low. We have gotten so distrustful of our digital lives that we now have a new acronym, LDL, for let’s discuss live. But we can’t turn back the clock to the analog era: we need trust to fuel our future economic growth. He mentioned that to be trustful, “an ethical company should be doing the right thing, even if no one is looking at them at the time.” I liked that idea: too often we hear about corporations that are polluting our environment, denying any responsibility or worse, covering up the details when they get caught.

Part of the challenge is that cybersecurity is really a business problem, not a failure of technology. This is because “breaches and intrusions will occur,” says Ghai. “We have to move beyond the shame of admitting a data intrusion, and understanding its business impact. Our goal should be maintaining cyber wellness, not trying to totally eradicate threats.” Taking better care of customers’ privacy is also good for business, as numerous reports (such as this one from RSA) have concluded recently. Almost half of the consumers surveyed believe there are ethical ways companies can use their data.

Another issue is that what we say and what we actually do about maintain our digital privacy is often at odds with each other. In a 2017 MIT privacy experiment, they found that student participants would quite readily give up personal data for very small incentives, such as a free pizza. This dichotomy is even seen with IT security pros. A recent survey by Yubico found that more than half of those IT managers who have been phished have still not changed their password behavior. If they don’t change to improve their own security, who will?

The same dichotomy can be said about transparency: sadly, there are few companies who are actually as transparent as they claim, either through willfully misleading the public (Facebook is tops in this regard) or by just doing a poor job of keeping their IT assets under appropriate controls (the City of Atlanta or Equifax are two prime case studies here).

Where do we go from here? Security expert Bruce Schneier says that trust is fragile, and transparency is essential to trust. The Knight report carries a series of recommendations for journalists, technology vendor managers, and ordinary citizens, and I hope we can implement many or all of them to make for a better mutual and trusted future. They include being better at practicing radical transparency, for journalists to disclose information sources as a rule, and making social networks step up and take responsibility for protecting their users. All of us need to work together if we want to turn this around and increase trust.

1 thought on “Privacy, transparency, and increasing digital trust

  1. It seems that for the first time in human history, the Internet has allowed the great unwashed, of which I’m a member, to communicate with any individual & to comment on anything that individual or corporation has done & said. In ancient times relatively speaking, the elite or upper crust could control the great unwashed by threatening loss of their souls (religion), limiting knowledge ( promoting illiteracy by not educating or limiting education (madrassas) ) or restricting knowledge (burn books, ban books, restrict newspaper articles (governments controlled press)). The upside / downside is that everyone can be an entrepreneur for little cash, but have an idea (good or bad) & promote it over the Internet for free. We had the Industrial Revolution, WW1, WW11, the Depression, Economic ups & downs & generally etc. which we have generally fumbled to completion. This is no different.

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