At first glance, the answer appears to be yes: digital technologies continue to spread just as quickly and to penetrate our lives more and more deeply, as they make their way into sectors that had not yet embraced the digital path: sectors as diverse as transportation, healthcare, education and travel are making the leap as they feel the pressure of mobility, Big Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things. So it is imperative that we have a firm grasp of the risks surrounding hyper-connectivity, to prevent the hopes of growth attached to this digital revolution from being dashed.
The heyday of the Privacy Paradox
However paradoxical it might be, the digital universe has not been spared its own crisis of faith. Everyone knows, more or less, that the new services on offer are not perfect: 60% of Internet users do not trust the Internet as a whole. A level of trust that deteriorated, in fact, between 2011 and 2015 for online banking, e-government and e-commerce. Only social media’s trust levels are rising, but only up to 43%, and topping out at 35% when it comes to cloud services. (“Digital Trust Barometer for France” ACSEL-CDC by IDATE DigiWorld, 2015).
At the same time, it is impossible not to see that this lack of trust is in no way impeding consumption. We have agreed to hand over our personal data in exchange for free services on our favourite social networking sites, fully aware that this information is being exploited for commercial purposes, and believing that it’s just “the price we have to pay”. We now accept that our new (and quite expensive) connected objects will utilise increasingly private information in exchange for services which, however promising, are still far from perfect. The latest statistics are not reassuring: cyberattacks rose by 38% around the world in 2015, and by 51% in France (PWC survey). As a result of this hacking plague, more than 700 million data were lost or stolen in 2015 (Breach level Index). It is both the frequency and the scale of the attacks that are striking: in early 2016, 80 million dollars were robbed from the Bank of Bangladesh. But it is still surprising that, if piracy is hurting the reputation of the company’s that have been the victims of it, the consequences ultimately stop there: no enterprise has yet been destroyed by a cyber attack, no matter how widely publicised it was.
And here is the crux of the paradox: the extraordinary acceleration of Internet services, with the GAFA quartet at the helm, their new challengers (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla and Uber) and the multitude of start-ups in their wake, is playing out in a climate of latent mistrust.
The digital planet under pressure
What does the next chapter have in store, at a time when sensors are tracking our various actions (locating and monitoring our info and movements in real time), mapping our behaviour using AI and predictive techniques? Our computers and phones, and soon our driverless cars, our connected doorways and electrical outlets… are relatively easy to hack. Even blockchain, despite is reputation of being unhackable by design, is suffering its first failures: a hacker managed to siphon 3.6 million ethers, or 46 million euros in Ethereum cryptocurrency, from its DAO fund.
Will we continue on the current trajectory of a tricky imbalance, where innovation wins out over trust and security issues? Or will the change in scale and the sensitivity of the data used by third parties (well beyond the socio-demographic data being shared today) force a real change in the arena of trust? The debate is far from over*. And a new balance will be established depending on the responses that users, public policymakers, hardware suppliers and service providers offer or manage to impose. The stakes are high as very different Internets could emerge, depending on the collective choices that are made. One of the key hypotheses of our “Digital Economy 2025” scenarios is based on accessing data that users share with third parties, and in accordance with local laws. If access remains open, as it is today, we will likely keep the current Internet: one that is dominated by veteran heavyweights (along with a few newcomers from Asia or the retail sector), and characterised by the rising use of new generation predictive applications, integrated virtual assistants and recommendation tools.
If, on the contrary, we are forced to deal with a crisis of faith, which is indeed possible, an entirely other Internet would emerge, one where data exchanges are confined to trusted third parties and players whose prime concern is security (banks, telcos, etc.). This would trigger a technological arms race aimed at guaranteeing users’ protection (biometrics, encryption…), as well as a legal battle to limit the ability to exchange data outside sector-specific silos (insurance, transport…). How we answer the question of what new ecosystem will the right one to manage our most private information, health-related data, genome data, for instance, will be key in shaping the next chapter. This is thus a crucial challenge for Europe, as it could mean an opportunity to regain control of its digital destiny.
*A debate that will be one of the focal points of the upcoming DigiWorld Summit, devoted to the theme of “The Digital Trust Economy” (15-17 November 2016)