Tech power exceeds ethical scope

The disruptive advances in ICT technologies – particularly in the realm of Big Data – are also creating a quagmire of ethical issues that could cripple the telecoms and ICT industry unless steps are taken to ensure that privacy, security and trust are deeply engrained into every part of the ecosystem.
 
That’s the vision of media futurist Gerd Leonhard, who told delegates at ITU Telecom World 2013 in Bangkok Thursday that we’re headed to a future where everything will become connected, intelligent, real-time, personalized and cross-platform, and we’ll see “even faster exponential growth in terms of velocity, variety, virality and value.”
 
The good news: all of this will create unprecedented business opportunities for service providers – provided they’re prepared to ditch outdated linear business models and adjust to the reality of a world where competition will often come from outside of the industry.
 
The catch is that as society becomes more dependent on data services and apps – and as businesses and governments harvest more and more of the personal data users generate using such services – things like privacy and security become of paramount importance. The recent revelations concerning the NSA’s mobile phone and internet surveillance activities – to include hacking into Google’s data centers – highlight the importance of taking privacy and security seriously, Leonhard said.
 
“The power of technology now exceeds the scope of our ethics. This is true of everyone, not just the US, and it’s going to increase,” he said.
 
That also goes for businesses aiming to leverage Big Data for marketing purposes. And these “data wars” are going to have a negative impact on the industry and society as a whole sooner or later, Leonhard warned. “Zero privacy, flawed security and abusive marketing will result in slower technology adoption, which will mean missed and reduced opportunities for businesses.”
 
Leonhard said that failure of privacy and trust will be “the biggest hurdle to progress in every segment of ICT.”
 
Leonhard went as far as to suggest that data is becoming the new “oil”, referring to oil-rich countries and oil companies that were once the main drivers of the global economy.
 
“Oil equals power,” he said pointing out that the internet has already shifted from a democratic, decentralized communications tool to a data network dominated by large companies, over 90% of which are based in the US.
 
Extending the analogy further, Big Data could become equated with Big Oil in a negative sense – think of the reputations of companies like Exxon-Mobil after a major oil spill or BP after the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A Big Data security or privacy breach of similar magnitude could be just as disastrous, he said. “Who will be the Exxon-Mobil of Big Data?”
 
The bottom line, said Leonhard, is that “technology has become so important in our lives that we need trust, ethics and standards to balance that out. We need a culturally differentiated but globally standardized balance of security and privacy.”
 
Leonhard said it has become time to establish a global “digital bill of rights” to define that balance, as well as internet governance via an international body representing all interests, sectors and agendas.”
 
Leonhard didn’t specify what body that might be, but said during a Q&A session it could be a job for the UN or the ITU.
 
That would be a hard sell – especially to the US, which has flatly rejected any attempt by the ITU to take over the role of ICANN as the main internet governance body. The country even refused to sign the WCIT-12 treaty updating the ITU’s International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) simply because it didn’t take the option of future discussion of such a proposal off the table.
 
However, Leonhard noted, the industry’s current trajectory and “the resulting digital inequality, abuse of personal data and the rise of feudal computing will not be resolved by market dynamics."
 

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