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  1. Spotlight on Policy
18 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:11pm

Don’t let trust become the next plaything of the cyber criminals

Humans are still the biggest risk in the digital world.

By Poppy Gustafsson

The last 200 years have been a whirlwind of technological invention. Aeroplanes have allowed us to transcend borders, MRI scanners have enabled us to explore the innermost workings of our brains, and the internet has put the world at our fingertips.

Our dependency on connected services is more extreme than ever, but between the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the infamous Panama Papers leak, distrust is rapidly infecting the fabric of modern society.

Trust is becoming the new plaything for cyber criminals, with once confidential information being hijacked. The more hackers expose, the more they can manipulate public perceptions. Nation states themselves are at it too, with Robert Mueller’s report revealing “conclusive evidence” that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

Politics aside, attacks on trust are getting more personal. Singapore recently suffered three major healthcare breaches which saw the personal data of thousands of citizens illegally accessed.

Closer to home, questions are still being raised as to whether we could successfully fend off another attack like WannaCry from two years ago, fuelling fresh fears about the nation’s ability to lock down the population’s most sensitive information.

Infrastructure too has been revolutionised by modern technology. A rising population of more empowered and assertive consumers has prompted the energy and utilities sector to unlock more reliable, higher quality and sustainable services using technology. Yet, rewinding to 2015, a sophisticated cyber attack on Ukraine’s power grid led to blackouts across Kiev, leaving citizens in darkness for up to six hours.

Whether sowing a general distrust of private companies’ ability to guard our data or fuelling fears about nations’ ability to lock down critical services and infrastructure, cyber interference risks destroying faith in the very instruments of democracy. It’s clear that technology has spearheaded societal development. However, as countries ramp up innovation, trust must be rebuilt in their ability to keep data and services safe.

Our “invest first, secure later” mindset has, undeniably, accelerated the cyber challenge. Yet, retreating from the modern world is not the answer. This is a challenge that we can – and must – innovate ourselves out of. And technology itself must be part of the solution to its own problem – in the shape of artificial intelligence (AI).

Why? Because humans remain the weakest link and biggest cyber risk. The rate of innovation is far outstripping our ability to adapt and secure. Software is millions of lines of code and one seemingly small mistake can result in sensitive data left open for anyone to see. Many hacking practices rely on exploiting human vulnerabilities and often encourage seemingly harmless behaviour, like downloading a malicious attachment that gives attackers unrestricted insider access.

Critically, AI can process vast data sets and draw meaningful insights in seconds. It therefore supercharges security officers in their ability to detect and counter advanced cyber threats. We have already seen it successfully stop ransomware in its tracks and detect subtle nation state espionage campaigns, without human intervention.

But trust takes time to rebuild. Getting to the point where democratic processes and critical infrastructure are protected by autonomous machines requires a considerable leap of faith. Innovators will have to acknowledge this reality, and engineer features into their creations that nurture trust between humans and algorithms.

We should be excited about the opportunities that technology innovation will unlock. However, we cannot expect society to embrace them without restoring trust in the technology that will be at its core. AI is not the panacea for all of society’s ills. But it has an essential role to play in solving our tech-fuelled problems, and consequently in restoring our trust in the institutions that sit at the centre of our digital futures.

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