Digital dystopia: your reputation is on the line

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Digital dystopia: your reputation is on the line
There are a great many technology shifts, but few are as important as the continued rise of hostile tech.
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Digital is everywhere – so what could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot. That is reflected in growing concerns over the power that large technology companies have over our lives and the health of society at large. From algorithms that propagate dangerous falsehoods across Facebook to the abuse of personal information by Amazon employees, we’ve seen no shortage of data scandals in recent times. And I have no doubt more are around the corner.

Our society is more digitally-charged than ever. Digital has improved our lives with countless new innovations, possibilities and conveniences. But with the good comes the reality that we must be well-prepared to defend not only against malicious threats, but also against subtle ways that tech threatens societal well being. 

The most visible “hostile tech" issues facing businesses and consumers are criminal attacks (like malware and hacking tools) but this doesn’t tell the full story. Collecting personal data or customer targeting can have serious consequences. Bias in algorithms or machine learning systems can disadvantage customer groups without ever having been compromised or deliberately designed that way. As automation continues to take humans ‘out of the loop’ and make decisions at machine speed, the possibility for things to go wrong rapidly escalates.

The hostile tech environment is becoming more sophisticated and increasingly taking the form of legal, even widely accepted, acts that fly under the radar but ultimately threaten societal well-being.

What counts as ‘hostile’ can be a matter of perspective. While some don’t find Internet advertising, tracking cookies or social media influencing campaigns to be intrusive and are happy to trade their data for what they perceive as personalised offers or special value, others install ad blocking software in their browsers and delete themselves from Facebook altogether.

Protecting the organisation, teams, suppliers and customers against hostile tech is becoming a critical part of brand reputation and trust. This can be achieved by making security ‘everyone’s problem’, establishing and communicating clear policies, capturing only the most necessary data needed to provide services to consumers, creating frameworks and policies for detecting and avoiding bias in their systems, and promoting ethical technology practices.

Forward-looking organisations are already factoring in potential negative implications of technology as they develop and deploy external-facing systems and products to minimise the threat and impact of any such incidents, whether malicious or unintended. Not only do they see benefit in protecting the integrity of their infrastructure, they understand that it is also protecting public brand perception and their place in the market. Importantly, they are taking a holistic approach that ensures security is a matter of practice across vertical and horizontal teams, rather than a singular IT department issue.

In fact, the expanding impact of hostile technology is one of five lenses highlighted in the latest Looking Glass report. It identifies an approach that centres on adopting secure security software, analysing the effectiveness of traditional authorisation (AuthZ) solutions that are likely stretched (and even modernising to one that can better keep up with changing boundaries) and anticipating the potential for quantum computing to ‘break’ encryption systems and perhaps the entire Internet using quantum algorithms such as Shor’s.

There are a great many technology shifts, but few are as important as the continued rise of hostile tech. Not only do businesses need to arm themselves against organised adversaries infiltrating organisations across a broader number of touchpoints, but they must also look within their own systems and processes to root out problematic targeting and bias, if they are to mitigate the risk of danger presented by hostile tech in all its dimensions. This isn’t just the right thing to do, it is increasingly core to business survival and prosperity in the digital world.

Scott Shaw is Director of Technology at Thoughtworks

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