By Sam Bocetta
Sometimes I miss the days when writing about tech issues involved writing about … well … tech. Ten years ago, a list of the top 5 tech issues would have focused on encryption, the advances being made in website builders, and predictions about the failure of the smartphone.
Today, tech is a part of every aspect of our lives, and so ‘tech issues’ are actually social, political, and cultural issues. In 2019, this has been more apparent than ever.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing tech in 2019 is the question of privacy. In some ways, this was expected. 2018 saw the introduction of the most wide-ranging privacy legislation to date, the European Union’s GDPR. As 2019 has progressed, we’ve seen a continual effort to interpret the resolution, and also attempts to apply similar laws in other places: the California Consumer Privacy Act, for instance, brought comprehensive privacy protection to one of every eight residents in the United States.
In other ways, 2019 has brought some unexpected revelations. One has been research that raises deep questions about whether data can ever be truly anonymous and as such questions the safety of companies releasing customer data even in so-called ‘anonymised’ form. The other huge story has been the explosion in consumer privacy tools: secure browsers, secure email systems, virtual private networks (VPNs) built for Macs, PCs, and nearly every type of connected computer (IoT) device. It seems, finally, that the public is waking up to the importance of protecting their data.
2019 has also been the year that disinformation, election interference, and fake news went mainstream. Beyond the headlines about Russian interference in the U.S. elections, some other reports have raised troubling questions about the role of tech companies in helping to spread disinformation.
A report sponsored by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which used data provided under subpoena by major social platforms, showed that between 2015 and 2017, more than 30 million users shared state-sponsored Facebook and Instagram posts with their family and friends.
Not that 2019 has brought any solution to this problem. Voluntary initiatives like NewsGuard have emerged, which aim to expose fake news stories, but at the moment the governmental response to the rise of fake news remains poor.
A year is a long time in politics. In 2018, we saw a steady wave of tariff increases on Chinese imports into the U.S., aimed at increasing the sales of American tech in China. Now, in mid-2019, we are embroiled in an escalating trade war that threatens to have dramatic effects on the profitability of U.S. tech companies.
Much of the analysis of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China has focused on the most exciting story of the year: the fact that Huawei was banned from the 5G rollout in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. However, there remain deep concerns over the approach of the Chinese government to tech that have been less well covered.
One is that cybersecurity analysts are seeing more and more spyware in the IoT, and a significant proportion of this appears to have originated with state actors. At the moment, the IoT remains something of a black hole when it comes to cybersecurity, with manufacturers prioritizing connectivity and new features over security.
Second, the case remains that China owns half of all VPNs, a fact that has received far less press attention than it deserves. One of the reasons why so many consumers are turning to privacy tools like VPNs is precisely to avoid state surveillance, but without realizing it they may be sharing their data with the Chinese government.
4. Biometrics and human rights
2019 has also seen increased debate about how the rise of biometric technologies can undermine human rights. Biometrics has been one of the fastest-growing sectors in tech for the past few years, and huge advances have been made due to the increased availability of AI technologies. The success of these technologies has even led some to suggest that we get rid of passwords completely, and instead use facial recognition to access all of our devices and systems.
On the other hand, citizens (and even courts) in the U.S. and U.K. have pointed out that widespread, indiscriminate collection of citizens’ facial data might directly contravene their rights.
5. AI and the economy
Concerns that we will all be replaced by robots have been a staple of science fiction for decades, but 2019 might be the year when that fear became real.
What’s striking about the research being done in this area in 2019 is how different countries have approached the same issue. In the U.S. and Europe, there has been much debate about how many jobs AI will make obsolete, and these discussions have often focused on who will win (and who will lose out) once AI becomes mainstream.
In Japan and South Korea, the situation couldn’t be more different. In those countries, research has tended to focus on the economic and social benefits of the mass roll-out of AI techs, and the fact that they will be able to counter a declining supply of human workers.
None of these debates are new, of course. Those involved in the tech sector have been dealing with them for decades. What is new, though, is the fact that 2019 appears to have been the year in which these debates became mainstream.
This is to be welcomed, of course. The tech sector needs the input of governments and citizens if we are to start coming up with solutions to these questions. But as yet, no easy answers have appeared.
Sam Bocetta is a freelance journalist specializing in U.S. diplomacy and national security, with emphases on technology trends in cyberwarfare, cyberdefense, and cryptography.