Grave concerns over the state of the Internet came into sharp focus Tuesday at Techonomy 2017, as session panelists talked about the beleaguered network’s effects on our political systems, cybersecurity, laws and regulations, economies and markets–and ultimately, on global society.
The panel, moderated by Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick, asked what obligations today’s tech giants—including Facebook, Amazon, and Google, and China’s Alibaba and Tencent, among others—owe to the rest of us to help make the web more transparent and secure.
“The differences between authoritarian society and democratic society are going to break down unless we very consciously and actively work to prevent that from happening,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights project.
Such a breakdown, she said, will pose a direct threat to those who in the past have been able to use the internet to challenge authority. “The Internet under attack is really civil society under attack,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon worries about the potential impact on the most vulnerable members of society, including human rights activists and marginalized groups especially in repressive countries, and questions whether security measures like identification requirements that might be imposed in more democratic places could only further endanger them. “The weaker civil society is in transitional places, the worse our security is going to be,” MacKinnon said.
That’s a liability easily exploited by enemies of the state, whether it be a foreign government deploying bot nets to plant fake news and sow national division, or a terrorist organization using the web to package and sell a perverted brand of patriotism as they would a product.
On some level, the panel warned, it’s already too late.
“Pandora’s Box has already been opened,” said Peder Jungck, CTO of the intelligence and security sector for defense contractor BAE Systems. He agreed with the panel’s other speakers that there are very few solutions to the problem at hand. Moreover, unless we acknowledge the fact that the Internet simply is not trustworthy, the problems are only likely to grow.
“As time goes by, the bad guys figure out how to break in,” said journalist and consultant Mark Anderson of Strategic News Service. That is true of all systems, whether it be a bank that’s being robbed or the Dark Net. “[A]t what stage does a boiling frog get angry?”
As security breaches like the Equifax disaster show, our personal information is not safe; our identities are everywhere. “There is no anonymity on the Internet. It has long since gone,” said Jungck.
What does this mean for the Internet of Things? Can we trust the current Internet enough to connect our devices to it? According to MacKinnon: “It’s like putting cars on the road without crash testing them.” In other words, no, the panelists said. None of them would allow connected devices like doorlocks, cameras, or garage door openers in their homes.
One step in the right direction is transparency, everyone agreed. “You cannot have an open society unless you know who is exercising power against who, to what end,” said MacKinnon. But panelists warned that such steps are only the first of many that will be needed.
U.S. policymakers in particular must strengthen their understanding of networked technologies if they are to protect our national interests and security. “We’ve essentially had a government that’s been asleep at the wheel,” Kirkpatrick said. He said it’s easy to blame the Internet giants, but government is equally or perhaps even more to blame for today’s frightening landscape of distrust and opacity.