Security Evangelist Tony Anscombe on the Tech Backlash of 2017

It’s time to ring out the old year. Or perhaps in the case of 2017, with its litany of data security breaches, social media manipulations, and allegations of sexual harassment, to just wring out the old.

As the year drew to a close, Xconomy asked a variety of tech industry observers for their perspective on the incidents that emerged from the dark side of tech in 2017, and whether public opinion about the tech industry is changing. Tony Anscombe is a global security evangelist for Eset, an IT security company based in Bratislava, Slovakia, (its North American headquarters is in San Diego). In addition to his role as a speaker, blogger, and author for Eset, Anscombe holds an executive position with the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization (AMTSO).

Here is an edited transcript of my e-mail exchange with Anscombe.

Xconomy: Do you think public attitudes toward tech and the tech industry turned more critical in 2017?

Tony Anscombe: I haven’t seen data on public attitudes, so it is difficult for me to judge. In my opinion, we actually are in danger of deeper complacency concerning security and privacy issues. In 2017, there have been a number of major incidents, such as WannaCry [malware] and the data breach at Equifax that exposed 143 million consumer accounts. The first caused instant damage, while the impact of the other will likely never be truly known. When there are major breaches every few months, how do you protect against them? “What can I do as a consumer to stop my data from being taken?” is a question many are asking.

This distance between the consumer and their ability to make a difference is magnified when legislation implemented for their protection is modified. This year we have seen Internet service providers regain the right to collect consumer data under the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules adopted in 2015. The effects of these changes may be unclear to the average consumer, and it further distances the consumer from feeling that security and privacy is an achievable goal.

X: Which attitudes in particular have changed, and in what ways?

TA: When the blame for major incidents is quickly laid on governments or large organizations, consumers are likely to feel that there is little or no action that they can take to protect themselves. This is a task their own governments should be undertaking. When the latest data breach is announced, people no longer rush to change passwords or remove personal details on other online accounts. They appear to view breaches as a normal everyday life.

X: Does the change in attitudes show up in ways that could materially affect the tech industry?

TA: Consumers’ increasingly complacent view toward security and privacy could have far-reaching effects. If people step back from proactively protecting their devices and data, a future attack could be even more devastating. If the ecosystem of security and privacy in technology continues to lose consumer engagement, then the tech industry itself may become more vulnerable.

X: Are there any steps you think the industry should take in 2018 to rebuild trust in tech in general or social media in particular?

TA: The challenge for the tech industry is to engage consumers and make sure they feel empowered regarding their security and privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) adopted by the European Commission and other authorities is set to take effect in May of 2018. This directive, while European, will have consequences for any company with European customers in their database.

GDPR places control back in the hands of the consumer, allowing active choices on what data they are willing to share. I would expect this to raise the bar on privacy and processes within all companies, regardless of their location. Regulation and legislation that give the consumer the feeling that they can regain control of their data will hopefully empower them to engage in taking further steps to secure their devices and data.

Editor’s note: This story is part of an Xconomy year-end series exploring the current public mood about technology and its effect on individuals and society.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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