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At what point does IT take responsibility for its actions?

At what point does IT take responsibility for its actions?

Posted on 17th May 2021

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If you are old enough to remember the first Gulf War, you may recall news reports of the Americans flooding the Iraqi military’s defence systems with jamming devices to prevent their anti-aircraft/ballistic defences from working.  

This came to mind when I read a story, widely-reported last week, that told us that the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has warned us that smart cities will be a target for hackers, and the local authorities need to be prepared to take action to a) prevent this, and b) sort it, if and when it does happen.

Making reference to the 1969 film, “The Italian Job,” in which Rome’s traffic management system was manipulated to allow a heist, the NCSC’s technical director, Ian Levy, said that an updated version of this would be “catastrophic” for those living in the affected city (much as the US and its allies’ tech was for the Iranian military).

We have written on our blog pages about the ways in which facial recognition technology and its integration into smart cities (in China in particular) poses major threats to the freedom of the individual, however, it occurred to me that there needs to be far more awareness of the consequences of our reliance on new technology BEFORE a major attack occurs.  A few days ago we read of just such an attack on a major pipeline in the USA which caused it to be shut down and President Biden to declare an emergency.  The impact has been substantial, with petrol becoming in short supply in the affected parts of the US and drivers queuing for fuel

There are, in my view, two issues here.  Firstly, that it’s the duty of ethical software developers not just to be mindful of the potential consequences of their, often stunningly brilliant and sophisticated work; and secondly, that our public authorities need to be very much better than they currently are at dealing with these threats.

As regards the first point, this is not to say that tech firms are unaware of these issues or ignore them.  They invariably make strenuous efforts to ensure that any software they create is as robust and safe as possible.  However, as we know the world is full of people who would do us harm and we also know that there is ample evidence of major tech firms (i.e. it’s the social media companies I’m talking about) only doing so much to prevent malicious and, at times, downright perverse if not evil content to circulate to their platforms.  This has resulted in the recent announcement in the UK parliament of a draft Online Safety Bill, intended to require the tech giants to do far more to tackle illegal and dangerous content online, with serious punitive measures proposed if they do not.  I am sure the vast majority will welcome this, especially those who have suffered grievously in the past.

As regards the second point, we tend to rely on government (usually via the secret services and the military) to keep us safe, whether from conventional attack or cyber attack, yet the weak points in our domestic infrastructure are in the public sector and in the commercial world.  Governments may do what they can, but, as in any war (and that’s essentially what this is – a war between those of evil intent and the rest of us) it only needs one bomber, assassin or hacker to get through.  They will, obviously, target the weakest links, which, in some instances, tend to be in the public sector, where outdated software has previously (and rightly) come in for some criticism. 

My view is that tech in general, like the social media companies, cannot wash its hands of these problems.  Facebook et al are facing sustained criticism simply because they tried to have it both ways: to allow their algorithms to maximise revenue while failing to do enough to remove harmful/illegal content quickly enough.  That’s why legislation is being introduced in the UK.  I’m all for the profit motive in tech and elsewhere, but it needs to be underpinned with a genuine sense of responsibility for the actions it might engender.  It is, again in my view, incumbent on all in IT not just to focus on their amazing, disruptive, money-making new kit, but also to consider all the potential (often unrealised) consequences it may have for others…

Michael Phair, Be-IT

Posted in News, Opinion

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