The dark side of a high-tech world

In a projection of the megatrends that could seriously impact the world over the next 20 years, the U.S. intelligence community has identified the ongoing information and communications revolution — and the Internet — as one of the key transforming forces that will shape our collective future, for better and for worse.

In a projection of the megatrends that could seriously impact the world over the next 20 years, the U.S. intelligence community has identified the ongoing information and communications revolution — and the Internet — as one of the key transforming forces that will shape our collective future, for better and for worse.

The U.S. report is a clear reminder that Canada needs to develop its own comprehensive digital strategy, something long promised but still unseen.

After every U.S. presidential election campaign, the National Intelligence Council — an advisory body or think tank for the U.S. director of National Intelligence — produces an analytical report outlining the major forces that could transform the world for the ensuing 20 years.

“During the next 15 to 20 years, the hardware, software, and connectivity aspects of IT will experience massive growth in capability and complexity as well as more widespread diffusion,” the recent Global Trends 2030 report says. “This growth and diffusion will present significant challenges for governments and societies, which must find ways to capture the benefits of new IT technologies while dealing with the new threats that those technologies present.”

In particular, IT-related developments will have the power by 2030 to change the way we live, how we conduct business, how we protect ourselves. But it will also open the door to major invasions of privacy, new opportunities for criminal and terrorist groups and greater governmental control and put our increasingly connected world at major risk.

The global spread of IT will give individuals and groups “unprecedented capabilities to organize and collaborate in new ways,” the report says, empowering the world’s growing middle class through social media.

Three trends — a 95 per cent drop in computer memory costs, a reduction in data storage costs to 100th of current prices, and a network efficiency increase by a factor of more than 200 — will greatly expand Internet use which in many ways should improve lives.

Africa is a good example.

A new report from the World Bank — The Transformational Use of Information and Communications Technologies in Africa — shows how IT has greatly enriched the lives of Africans, enabled large numbers of Africans to access financial, crop, health and other information services and fostered greater entrepreneurial opportunities. In 2000, there were fewer than 20 million fixed-line phones across Africa, mainly in offices and rich households; there are almost 650 million mobile subscriptions in Africa, more than in the U.S.

But more powerful IT systems will also empower illegal groups, including “networks involved in crime, terrorism, human and drug trafficking, and the theft of intellectual property” and at present “such illicit activities are outstripping the capacities of most countries and multilateral institutions to contain them.”

There is another dark side in our interconnected world. Our electric power grids, the Internet, cash machines, broadcast media, traffic lights, financial systems and air traffic software are vulnerable to disruption. The reality is that “few, if any, systems can claim to be completely secure against a determined attack,” the report warns, so that cybersecurity will be a big challenge. Moreover, criminal groups and “malicious individuals” are likely to become much more sophisticated in their ability to disrupt networks.

At the same time, communications technologies will give governments — democratic and authoritarian — “an unprecedented ability to monitor their citizens.”

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation, for example, found that the Obama administration is allowing the National Counterterrorism Centre to download entire government databases to investigate millions of Americans, even of those suspected of no crime, for possible criminal behaviour.

“Fear of the growth of an Orwellian surveillance state may lead citizens particularly in the developed world to pressure their governments to restrict or dismantle big data systems,” the report says.

There will be legitimate concerns as well, about the ability of corporations to compile detailed information about individuals. Companies like Google and Facebook “have more real-time information at their fingertips than most governments.

As these mountains of data are used to improve knowledge of human motivations, non-state actors such as private companies will be able to influence behaviour on as large a scale as state actors,” the report warns. Privacy will be a big issue.

The information revolution has the power in coming decades to do much good. Canada needs to be part of that revolution.

But cybersecurity is also critical, which is why the information revolution is a two-edged sword. A realistic digital strategy will focus on both opportunity and risk.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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