Over the course of this year, I’ve written about a thousand stories. Across that, there have been some important topics such as the ongoing troubles of Facebook that started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in April and continued this week with revelations that personal messages were leaked to some of Facebook’s partners.
We had the Spectre and Meltdown CPU issues early in the year and, just in the last couple of weeks, the introduction of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018. After all that’s happened, there’s one significant theme that links all those together; trust.
It’s easy to get carried away with the latest tech that is announced, released and forgotten in the course of a news cycle. And we have seen some impressive tech. Microsoft and Apple continue to refine and improve the desktop and laptop operating systems we depend on, and Android and iOS keep getting better and better. New hardware is released almost every month and it is more reliable, easier to use and looks better.
In 2002, Microsoft’s CEO Bill Gates issued a famous memo to all staff and bout Trustworthy Computing. He said
Trustworthy Computing is the highest priority for all the work we are doing. We must lead the industry to a whole new level of Trustworthiness in computing.
Gates rightly understood that if people didn’t trust the company, it would not matter how good the products were, people would stop using them.
As I talked to people through the course of 2018, there was an edge to many of the chats I had. Skepticism and distrust are now part of the discussion. While politicians have rarely been amongst the most liked folks in those surveys of “most trusted people in the public eye” distrust in the actions of governments around the world seems to be rampant.
When I was in the United States during 2016, there were plenty of people who didn’t agree with the politics of Barack Obama. But most people took him at his word. Jump to 2018 and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks the words coming from President Trump’s mouth are to believed.
That distrust of politics was exacerbated by the Brexit debacle. And locally, the merry-go-round of party leadership has resulted in changes in so many changes of Prime Minister that the Italian government says we’re unstable.
And while politics isn’t my usual schtick, the distrust of politicians is symptomatic of what we are seeing more broadly.
Most people understand that Facebook’s business model is to analyse our posts and find ways to target ads in order to generate revenue. But the egregious breaches of trust, that started with Cambridge Analytica in April and continue today, have changed our attitude to the world’s most significant social network. I see, in my feed, that people are sharing less now. Their posts are just a little less “personal” and location check-ins and other information are now omitted or only reported after the fact so they can’t be used in real time.
While I was attending the Twilio Signal event earlier this year, the question of transparency in machine learning models was explored. Most of us trust machine learning to determine the quickest route from home to a friend’s house using your preferred mapping app. But would you trust an algorithm to sentence someone convicted of a serious crime? Or to allocate funds from a budget to schools competing for dollars? Those exact scenarios are occurring today in the United States. And the algorithms in question are proprietary and closely guarded by commercial companies.
Can you trust a decision making process you can’t see?
Locally, we saw the introduction of metadata retention laws a couple of years ago and, earlier this month, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 was passed by the parliament, giving local law enforcement agencies the power to ask tech companies to somehow “break” the encryption we depend on for privacy. So, we have a government we are increasingly distrustful of seeking world-first powers to listen in on private communications.
Within a few hours of publishing a story yesterday, whatever faith I had in the federal opposition was dashed. After saying the government's encryption legislation was on shaky ground, the soft underbelly of the opposition was exposed. With the government playing their "soft on terrorism" cards the opposition rolled over and said they would support the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 with a few modifications.Read more
The impact of that legislation is that overseas entities now question whether they can trust Australian technology and tech workers.
Well shit, I've already got international folks asking if they need to treat their Australian teams as potentially compromised now.
— Paul Fenwick (@pjf) December 6, 2018
I’ve worked in the tech industry, in some form, for over 25 years. And while security has always been a big deal, since the days of the Melissa virus, through the Code Red days, through to ransomware, denial of service and every other type of attack under the sun, the bad guys were always easy to identify. In the old days, it was about script kiddies. Then it was organised crime and, more recently, nation-state attackers. But we always knew the adversaries were “someone else”.
The tech companies providing us with messaging services have not only encrypted all of our communications from end-to-end but they’ve ditched the keys so they can’t access our communications. Even hardware encryption is becoming mainstream as technology such as the Secure Element chip and bespoke processors like Apple’s T2 become standard tools.
Now, we question the tools and technology we use every day and wonder whose team the government is on.
There will be lots of tech stories in 2019, 2020 and beyond. We’ll see new gadgets appear, lots of marketing hyperbole and an abundant overuse of the words “disruption” and “innovation”. But scrape all that back and ask the question – do you trust this year’s products and services in the same way you did in 2016?
I get that the world moves on and things change. I’m an optimist and think, most of the time, things move forward and get better. The reason the “good old days” are old is that they weren’t really all that good. But I’m seeing a malaise creep in. Distrust and suspicion are increasingly part of the commentary that appears in parallel with new technology and changes in technology policies.