From artificial embryos to cloud-based AI, 2018 was another year where the impossible became possible thanks to rapid advancements in technology. But as the online world approaches the milestone of 30 billion connected devices, all is not well in the real world. We may be on the brink of a technology backlash fuelled by fear and uncertainty around three burning issues: privacy and data security, facial recognition technology (and the right to it), and the definition of free speech.
1. Privacy and data security
Personal security is always a touchy subject. From the now infamous 2015 hacking of Ashley Madison’s married client base, to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, to the admission just last month that the Marriott Hotel hack had exposed the passport details of up to 500 million people and many more, data breaches have a long history. The Federal Government’s Assistance and Access Bill 2018 could spell the death knell for consumer confidence while, simultaneously, undermining the efforts of tech entrepreneurs building businesses to fight cybercrime. Passed on Parliament’s last sitting day of 2018, the bill’s significance and its damaging impact became buried as Australia shopped, ate and drank its way into the festive season.
The new bill enables law enforcement agencies to access encrypted communications on platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Skype or WhatsApp if it is suspected that content contains plans for illegal or terrorist activity. This effectively means that security must be weakened in the form of a backdoor to allow decryption to take place.
There are three things fundamentally wrong with this picture.
Firstly, as in the real world, the strongest of locks on the front door provides no peace of mind if there’s a backdoor wide open for burglars or, in this case, hackers. Consumers and businesses are right to be nervous, and we may see businesses storing data overseas with companies that have no presence in Australia.
Secondly, the Australian tech scene is home to many talented entrepreneurs working tirelessly on cybersecurity start-ups. Why would these businesses want to base themselves in Australia where the government is undermining their business?
And finally, the Government dictates the definition of ‘terrorist’ and law enforcers only need to ‘suspect’ someone. We often see the use of the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘hijacked’ by senior government members to exaggerate certain activities or occasions that don’t fall within the historical definition of terrorism. Can we really trust them to use these powers fairly then?
2. Facial recognition
Another example is the growing use of facial recognition technology. This year, Sydney Airport and Qantas began trialling biometrics, with an initial phase of testing check-in, bag drop, lounge access and boarding. As with all new security, it is not long before vulnerabilities start to appear. A recent report from a Forbes journalist found it was possible to break through facial recognition security using a 3D print out of a head. In a test of a number of smartphones, Apple was the only phone that did not unlock.
In addition to security doubts, facial recognition technology has been the subject of ethical scrutiny as its use by government has not been clarified. Indeed, last year, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced legislation that would allow his department to share biometric data with other government agencies when appropriate. So, when is it appropriate? This contentious question is shrouded in government secrecy. It could be for counter-terrorism but it could also be for broader surveillance and even road safety. There is no opt-out and no clear guidelines around the use of this data.
3. Free speech
Free speech is a highly subjective issue and difficult to monitor in its many forms, varying from individual opinion on social media platforms to the sharing of information that may be protected in certain jurisdictions. Although a recent Australian court imposed a suppression order that prevented Australian media from reporting on the conviction of a high-profile figure, international sites plastered the defendant’s identity on their home pages. The internet has circumvented local laws and there needs to be further international collaboration and uniformity to find a way that is both fair and realistic. Tech platforms need clear, strict and enforceable guidelines on this topic.
In 2018, some platforms, including Wikipedia, banned websites, such as the controversial right-wing website, Brietbart, as a source of facts; Apple removed the app from its store after years of tacit endorsement; Tumblr prohibited adult content from its microblogging and social networking platform; and Facebook suspended alt-right content creators like Alex Jones from its platform. While we should defend the right to free speech, we must find a way to better manage those who express bigoted or offensive views. Tech platforms need clear, strict and enforceable guidelines on this topic.
For the tech community, the consequences of these tech ‘watch-outs’ are far-reaching. From users to start-ups and established businesses through to investors, these are high-stakes issues. Investors are regularly asking what the effect of these factors will be on the investment performance of the sector.
The number one question they should be asking is around the value of data and how easily it can be compromised.
Moreover, ethical considerations will also play an important role in shaping investment decisions. Issues in technology will call for even better tech solutions and, in the entrepreneurial tech world, a solution to these issues may not be far away. In the meantime, it’s a case of investor beware and being armed with all the available knowledge in your arsenal in order to make the best investment decisions.
Benjamin Chong is a partner at venture capital firm Right Click Capital, investors in high-growth technology businesses.