Losing digital trust will harm technological innovation: Here’s how to earn it again

Digital trust is in decline.

Digital trust is in decline, here's how to earn it again. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Daniel Dobrygowski
Head, Governance and Trust, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Cybersecurity

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  • Digital trust in the technologies used by businesses and governments is at an all-time low.
  • Failure to rebuild digital trust is financially damaging and undermines the credibility of societal institutions.
  • A new report by the World Economic Forum explains how to build more trustworthy technologies.

Digital trust among individuals is rapidly running out – along with it, the expectation that digital technologies and services (and the organizations providing them) will protect all stakeholders’ interests and uphold societal expectations and values.

To stop the current freefall in trust, leaders of companies who create and deploy digital technologies need to make more trustworthy decisions about those technologies. They need to start thinking of citizens and users as stakeholders in technological innovation and stop thinking of technological harms as externalities that don’t need to be addressed unless they affect the bottom line. It means they need to choose to make decisions in favour of digital trust.

We want to believe that the technologies we let into our homes and workplaces, that help us maintain social connections, and underpin everything from factories to the institutions of democracy, are trustworthy. Until now, we’ve wanted to trust so badly that we’ve tried to avoid worrying so much about data breaches and cyber-attacks.

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We’ve avoided getting too angry at connection failures and reliability issues. We’ve even been content to go along with all manner of low-level surveillance and misuse of our personal data. In recent years, the combination of cybersecurity breaches, interconnectivity failures, and ethical lapses in the application of digital technologies has finally pushed people to their limits.

Leaders need to rebuild digital trust in technology

Citizens and consumers are demanding that companies and technology developers take their values seriously around privacy, data use, and inclusion. Unfortunately, companies don’t appear ready to provide the assurances that customers, citizens, and governments need. PwC recently found that only 10% of executives feel prepared to comply with cybersecurity transparency requirements. At the same time, new technologies are raising further questions – in a KPMG survey, over 75% of executives believe that new technologies like AI and Machine Learning raise troubling cybersecurity and ethics questions.

Failing to shore up digital trust is already costing companies money (Accenture reports that a growing lack of trust cost US organizations $756 billion in 2017). Even more alarmingly, this technological mistrust is spilling over into all societal institutions as well. Unless technology developers start earning trust, this trend will continue. McKinsey found that 85% of consumers surveyed want to know a company’s data privacy policies before making a purchase, while 72% want to know a company’s AI policy. Ultimately, where companies are unable to produce technology that meets consumer and citizen expectations, they can no longer expect widescale adoption.


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All this means that, without CEO and board action and a change in behaviour, trust in technology and innovation will continue to fall. While distrust has a place – it ensures healthy skepticism of overblown claims and ensures verification – a wholesale loss of trust in technology threatens to cascade and further erode the worn-out trust in business and government institutions whose relationships with individual citizens are increasingly reliant on, and mediated by, those technologies. Despite many technologists’ best efforts, there will be no technological solution to the trust problem. Blockchain, zero trust frameworks, and other ideas are tools and processes that have their place, but in the end, we won’t be able to solve the trust problem unless we learn to think about technology differently.

Action on digital trust is needed for innovation

Choosing to focus on digital trust can be daunting – that’s why the World Economic Forum brought together technology leaders, business executives, government leaders and citizen and consumer advocates to understand what needs to be done in order for technology decisions to be more trustworthy. What we found is that the goals of technology decisions are just as important as the decisions themselves. When thinking about technology, leaders need to recognize the importance of security, reliability, good accountability and oversight, and inclusivity, ethics and responsibility. Only with those goals in mind – and with an aim toward upholding the values and expectations of individuals – can technology leaders begin to rebuild trust.

This decision-making is a fundamental responsibility of CEOs, board directors and other leaders because it needs to bring together a host of factors: cybersecurity, safety, interoperability, privacy, transparency, redressability, ethics and fairness. Only by covering all these dimensions can digital trust be achieved. Our latest report, Earning Digital Trust: Decision-Making for Trustworthy Technologies, spells out how to build more trustworthy technologies.

The great 19th-century novelist Jane Austen wrote, in the voice of her timeless character Mr. Darcy, “my good opinion, once lost, is lost forever”. In the 21st century, consumers, citizens, governments, and potential business partners are more technologically advanced than Jane Austen could have ever predicted. But we all still have the same human nature and the same long memories. Therefore, there’s a real risk that once trust is lost in technology, innovation, and each other, it could very well be lost forever.

If trust in technology is lost forever, then so too might be the possibility of a future of innovation and opportunity. To avoid that, we’ll need to commit to earning digital trust.

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