In an increasingly interconnected world, how can people maintain some semblance of privacy while preventing their devices from being hacked? More importantly, are we doing enough to ensure the generations to come have the tools they need to navigate an increasingly interconnected and automated world? These questions were explored at the annual Cyber Summit in Banff this past October.
Surprisingly for a tech conference, there was a lot of conversations focused a the human side of technology. We are frequently told that advances in technology are poised to solve society’s most dire problems – from climate change to health crises to ubiquitously available education. But throughout the Cyber Summit, we were reminded that it is the human element, not the technology itself, that drives social, environmental, and scientific change. It’s how people use technology for good or evil, and the mistakes we make, that affects the final outcome. In order to make positive change through technology, we have a responsibility to educate the next generation on how to securely interact on the internet, and to know what information they can trust and share.
This issue was brought home by Michael Patrick Lynch, a philosophy professor from the University of Connecticut. He pointed to most people’s reliance on their smartphones and Google searches to find answers to questions – and asked if anyone stops to think if the information that pops up first in their feed is actually correct, or whether it is biased based on their past searches and interests? Lynch worries that the following generations will lose the ability to critically think and evaluate the world around them, that knowledge will be replaced with data repositories. Are we just using technology to verify what we desire to be true, rather than ask it to show us what really is true?
The Summit also implored attendees to think about the privacy policies that apply to technology. Dr. Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law, examines the challenges at the intersection of law and the rapid pace of advancing technology. In his keynote address, he noted that the pace of policy making in Canada simply cannot keep up with advances in big data, surveillance, and a globally distributed network of connected devices. If we want the law to reflect the issues we are really facing, we need to contact our local politicians to let them know our concerns. “It only takes two constituents contacting their MP to make a pressing issue for them,” he said.
Cybersecurity was also top of mind. The recent Internet of Things-fuelled attacks that brought down several major websites demonstrates the fragility of the internet in the face of motivated attackers. Cyberattacks like these also raise questions about the balance of power online. In her Summit presentation, Dr. Sonia Chiasson (who holds the Canada Research Chair in Human Oriented Computer Security) showed that staff (and students) are a weak line of defense against hackers. In exercises run by her research team, they found that most users select weak passwords and fall prey to phishing (even if they are educated on what to look for in a suspicious website or email). She said the problem isn’t necessarily with the user, but in systems that expect users to recognize sophisticated cyberattacks. We need to acknowledge that people will always be vulnerable to hacking, and look to limit the amount of damage that can be done when (not if) an outsider has access to private emails and passwords.
Finally, a common theme that ran throughout the Summit was data privacy. Alberta’s Privacy Commissioner, Jill Clayton, discussed the role of legislation to protect individual’s privacy, as well as what responsibilities public and private sectors have to ensure their users’ data is protected (and that users are told what is being done with their data). Senator Jim Cowan also spoke about his work to prevent genetic discrimination in Canada (particularly as it is now possible to obtain genetic data by simply mailing out a saliva sample). To that end, he introduced Bill S-201 to prevent genetic discrimination by employers and insurers. The bill was passed in the Senate and is currently before a committee of the House of Commons. Canada is currently the only developed nation without legal protection from genetic discrimination, so we hope to see this bill become law soon!
This article first appeared in STEM Magazine.