James Lamond:
Why Cybersecurity Is Key To Solving Global Crises

This op-ed was originally published in Forbes.

Today’s global security environment is rapidly changing and is infinitely more complex than in years past. The challenges, at times, appear to be insurmountable, but innovation and creative uses of new technologies may very well be part of the calculus to help address them.

For this to work, however, business leaders and policymakers around the world need to consider the implications of cybersecurity choices more carefully than they have to date.

This year, I took part in a series of discussions, panels and conferences in Europe looking at emerging security concerns in a rapidly changing geopolitical context. These included attending the 60th annual Munich Security Conference (MSC), an annual conference that brings together the leading thinkers and practitioners on issues of global security. One of the themes that emerged from the conversations is the need to think about security more broadly than is traditionally understood.

Today, there are ongoing wars in both Europe and the Middle East. Cyberattacks, including against democratic institutions, occur regularly. Last year set heat records around the world, contributing to dangerous temperatures and wildfires endangering the health, security and livelihood of billions of people. Food insecurity related to depressed agriculture production or changing supply chains and exacerbated by climate change threatens vulnerable populations and unstable governments.

These global challenges are taking place both independently of one another, but many times are also exacerbated by each other. As the world continues to grow increasingly more complex, we need to think about ways to address, or at least mitigate, some of the negative impacts of these crises.

While certainly not a cure-all, new technologies, which can be applied in innovative and creative ways, can be part of the answer.

Consider food insecurity, which was a major focus of the conversation at the MSC. Advances in agricultural technology offer the potential to address food scarcity and high food prices in both the short and long term.

As Axel van Trotsenburg, World Bank’s senior managing director, responsible for Development Policy and Partnerships, said, it’s “important to remember that food security can only be achieved if we transform our food systems, and innovation is key to its success.”

Advancements in precision agriculture can allow farmers to factor in how various growth and environmental factors interact to affect biological performance. They incorporate global positioning systems (GPS), yield monitors and variable rate application technology to more precisely apply crop inputs to enhance growth.

The result is greater yields with the use of less fertilizer and water, saving farmers money that can then be passed on to consumers, as well as reductions in environmental degradation. Based on some estimates, if pervasively deployed, precision farming technologies can cut water use by up to 30%, reduce herbicide use by 99.99%, reduce fuel use by 10% and cut food prices in half.

In other words, this technology allows farmers to be much more efficient and is built around a complex system of sensors used to monitor and control systems, communication technologies and data analytics.

Emerging technologies also have the potential to help address other global crises like climate change and public health. Advancements in technology can help inform early warning systems to help communities prepare for things like floods and forest fires, preserve cultivation in the face of saltwater intrusion and protect biodiversity amid changing ecosystems.

Meanwhile, public health entities can leverage health information technology to prevent disease and improve population-level decision-making by improving the quality and quantity of health data available to public officials. This includes advancements like electronic health records, health information exchanges and community information exchanges that help address many types of public health concerns.

But these technologies require connected devices and massive amounts of data—often very personal and sensitive data. And if we want to be able to take advantage of these tools, then both business leaders and policymakers have an important role to play.

Unfortunately, the trend around the world is heading in the wrong direction.

Businesses have a responsibility to protect their consumers’ data, especially as connected devices are used for more purposes. A recent high-profile data breach resulted in millions of consumers’ data including names, addresses and social security numbers ending up on the dark web.

One tool that businesses can employ to protect their consumers is data minimization, which means that you only collect the data necessary to serve a specific function. Ultimately, even the most secure systems could potentially be breached, but if personal data is never collected and stored, it cannot be stolen. However, the amount of data that is collected and stored by companies is only expected to grow. Absent digital privacy legislation, it’s up to the companies to do more to protect their users.

Policymakers also have a responsibility, but unfortunately, new and proposed laws that are designed to address digital issues are not taking into account security concerns raised by technical experts.

This spring, the long-awaited Digital Markets Act (DMA) went into effect in the European Union. The DMA was designed as an effort to restructure the technology marketplace in Europe. However, there are concerns it will have serious side effects that will likely degrade security. For example, requirements that device manufacturers allow unvetted apps or permit developers to direct users to untrusted payment methods, as outlined in a recent paper by CSIS.

Similarly, important proposals are being considered in Australia, the U.K., the EU and the U.S. that are meant to address critical issues including detecting child abuse and terrorist content. Unfortunately, technical experts have found that these proposals would fundamentally undermine data security for everyone by effectively outlawing the use of end-to-end encryption, which makes data unreadable for anyone other than the intended recipient and is the basis behind much of the secure technology we use today from mobile banking to connected healthcare.

There are real challenges in the world, and technology could be a great aid to address them. But data security needs to be thought about more carefully if this is going to work.

James Lamond is the Executive Director of Trusted Future, a Washington-based think tank focused on technology policy.

Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives.