The Great Reset and digital trust: 3 lessons on digital tools from the COVID-19 crisis

A student takes classes online with his companions using the Zoom app at home during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in El Masnou, north of Barcelona, Spain April 2, 2020. REUTERS/ Albert Gea     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2BWF9ONUM7

Who's afraid of digital tools? Image: REUTERS/ Albert Gea

Daniel Dobrygowski
Head, Governance and Trust, World Economic Forum
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The Great Reset

This article is part of: Centre for Cybersecurity
  • Digital mistrust – or a lack of confidence in digital tools – is high and rising.
  • The post-pandemic Great Reset will spark questions about what technologies we use to rebuild.
  • The use of digital technology during the COVID-19 crisis offers clear lessons: focus on the safety of essential organizations; protect work-from-home capabilities; and target mistrust broadly to enable specific crisis-relevant tech.

Plans to “rebuild” post-pandemic using digital tools and innovation risk falling at the first hurdle because most of us don’t trust the builders or the things being built.

The foundations of digital trust are security and responsibility: tools and rules to protect people. But mistrust of digital technologies and of the businesses controlling them is high and rising. History also shows that new technologies have too often harmed their users or the people building them and enriched the few who control them.

We will struggle to transform our way out of the current COVID-19 crisis, without addressing the roots of the lack of digital trust and finding ways to build it.

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Demands to immediately reopen and start “building again”, as with Marc Andreesen’s argument, “It’s Time to Build”, misdiagnose the problem. It’s not really a question of whether we will begin to build and innovate again, building and innovating is part of human nature. It’s a question of what technologies we want to build, who will be motivated to build them, and how will they be built. If we want to build a transformative society - one that’s resilient to the next disaster - then a systems approach is essential. The necessary collaboration, however, is only possible if we solve the digital trust problem.

The use of digital tools during the COVID-19 crisis offers 3 lessons.

1. Keep essential organizations safe

Looking to security first, from healthcare to work-from-home tools, breaches and vulnerabilities weaken our trust in the tools we’re using to combat the pandemic (or work during it) and in the institutions that use them. Hospitals, healthcare providers, and global health organizations, stretched as they are dealing with an influx of new patients with a novel disease that requires significant changes to the provision of care, are finding themselves especially vulnerable to breaches, ransomware and other cyber-attacks.

The clear lesson here is that every organization connected to the internet (especially when it provides essential services) has a duty to safeguard its own security. If patients can’t trust their local hospital to provide basic care, they won’t go, and we lose out on both the ability to help those patients as well as the chance to monitor the spread of disease.

The response to this significant threat offers guidance on how to collaboratively build digital trust. Some companies and governments are now working together to try to provide the tools and the know-how to keep essential organizations safe from cyber threats so that they can keep the population safe from coronavirus. While the response is nowhere near matching the threat, it’s a start and a lesson for how things can work if we decide to invest in cybersecurity and digital trust.

2. Learn from the Great Work-from-Home experiment

Given the revolution in remote working brought about by the crisis, it’s possible to pick out notable failures and some successes in establishing digital trust for these technologies. There’s an education here in the triumphs and setbacks that can help guide the transformations ahead.

Failures of responsibility, ethical lapses and threats to values like privacy are sometimes less obvious day-to-day. When everyone is working from home and relying on a host of digital intermediaries, however, these problems become much more prominent. For example, the widespread vulnerabilities along with default settings causing loss of privacy in videoconferencing and telework tools have impacted everyone from workers to college students to children trying to attend virtual schools. Rushing to market, without considering harm to users, led these companies to minimize necessary security measures.

This short-term pursuit of users and profits leads to a long-term deficit in digital trust.

A lack of accountability for users' privacy or equality in usability will eventually turn users against them, setting up a conflict between our values and our economy that will erode both. The lesson here is to put users and their well-being first. Principles like security-by-design and privacy-by-design need to be integrated in order to save trust in the tools we need to support the economy in the pandemic and in the future as modes of working shift to become more resilient.

3. Mistrust hampers crisis response

Information itself, digitally connected and promulgated online, is also subject to the logic of digital trust. Consider the problems of contact-tracing apps, developed by some of the largest tech companies as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19. Because these companies aren’t trusted to protect the data of human subjects, officials are hesitant to use this potentially helpful technology (and some government attempts at these apps don’t instill confidence either). In this case, our ability to respond to a crisis is hampered by decades of ignoring the need to build trusted digital systems.

While the US is still learning how dire the human and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, the idea is taking root that “normal” is behind us and getting back to a functional society and economy is going to require a widespread “reset” or once-in-a-century transformation of our lives and institutions.

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The Great Reset requires digital trust

Societies and economies will emerge from the current crisis having been reshaped, likely significantly. We have the opportunity to use this time to intentionally transform them to be stronger, more resilient and more equitable. But in order to reset to a more secure, more equal, and more stable world, we need to put digital trust front and centre. That means, whether we’re creating new technologies, or applying old ones to new problems, we need to put security, responsibility, accountability and ethical concerns at the forefront of our design.

The Great Reset will require new institutions and business models, and new digital technologies to build them. For all those working to design this future, let’s start by building digital trust.

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