The digital economy is dangerous, we just haven’t figured out how

We’re all about the digital economy and if you listen to the industry leaders, you can’t go wrong. But the digital economy is incredibly dangerous, it’s just the nefarious characters haven’t figured out how to hurt you yet.

This might sound very doom and gloom, and we are by no means trying to stop people using the internet, but just because the risks are unknown does not mean they are not there. Companies like Facebook or Amazon will tell you it is completely safe, and they are sort of correct. Right now it is safe, but that is only because those clever hackers haven’t figured it out.

Back in November, Strava, a popular exercise which tracks your runs/cycles, released a heat map which revealed where people were exercising. The result is quite an interesting map, which you can have a look at here. Is this a bad thing? No, of course not. Except when dodgy characters realise that military personnel like to do exercise.

According to the Guardian, military analysts noticed the map was detailed enough to give away sensitive information on where military bases where and what the layout was. For most bases this is not the end of the world, but for overseas bases this could be an issue. In countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, where Strava users are most likely to be military personnel, the jogging routes are a bright speck in a sea of darkness.

Of course, Strava should not be blamed for this, it is an innocent accident. But there are quite a few examples of technology coming back to bite the user. How about families who post holiday pictures on Facebook only to come home and find their house has been robbed. Or that Tweet a decade ago which just cost you your dream job. Just because the internet seems safe now, doesn’t mean the euphoria of information won’t be exploited in the future.

This is part of the problem with data leaks. Right now, no-one really cares as there are no immediate financial or emotional implications. There are few examples where a human face can be put on the consequence of a data breach.

But there might be problems already. With all this information out in the public domain, there could be a fake virtual you out there. This is not causing you any problems, but how about clever hackers who have created dozens of online gambling accounts and is collecting the referral rewards or promotional bets. This is doesn’t affect you, but it is fraud.

Facebook and other social media accounts are being used to authenticate users in a variety of different ways, and all the information which is out there is making these profiles seem more genuine. The gambling example above doesn’t hurt any individual, but what about dating apps.

Someone those on the dating app might validate the authenticity of the person they are speaking to by checking out their social media profile. If this fake profile looks genuine, this could lead an individual meeting another person who might have some pretty suspect intentions. This does sound very doom and gloom, and we should not these are the extreme exceptions not the rule, but it is worth a reality check every now and then.

As a society we are quick to find the shiny new ball and start throwing it around before we figure out how high it will bounce. This is where we are right now. The digital economy is so cut-throat we are desperate to throw new ideas out into the public before it is properly stress tested. Strava had a good idea, but more thought into the possible consequences might have resulted in excluding the data from potential military zones, or removing data from active military personnel.

Some people might look at the data which has been leaked from various online platforms and services without being too bothered. And it might not hurt you right now, but that is not to say it won’t hurt you at some point in the future; the technology and the various companies are still maturing after all.

The digital society is still young which is the source of the challenge. Amazon is one of the oldest at 23, Facebook is 13, Twitter is 11, Uber is 8. These are all maturing companies, who are venturing into unexplored areas of the map; the challenges they are facing are sometimes genuinely unique and the first time they have ever been experienced. Knowing all the possible outcomes is impossible, so there will be a few scenarios which surprise even the technology geniuses.

The internet is the way forward, but like adopting a new puppy, there is always the chance it will bite you until it is fully grown. The internet companies are only talking about throwing services out the market quicker, which could increase the variety and velocity of the risks.

The most sensible answer to this would be to slow down the development cycle and apply more stress tests to any new product, but slowing down the internet is like trying to keep to stop a Welshman from getting to choir practise.

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