Cybersecurity Firm Illumio’s Alan Cohen on the Tech Backlash of 2017

One of the largest and most consequential data breaches in 2017 afflicted credit reporting agency Equifax, and it was hardly the only victim. Any year-end review of technology news must also include reports on Russian hacking of the 2016 election campaign, and the manipulation of social media channels to spread false and divisive political messages. These revelations led to Congressional investigations, and pledges by social media companies to better curate the content flowing through their platforms.

The drumbeat of mishaps and scandals this year also included charges of sexual harassment and gender discrimination among tech companies and investors.

Have all these reports changed the public’s view of the technology industry and its products? One insider says, “Yes.”

Alan Cohen, chief commercial officer at Sunnyvale, CA-based cybersecurity company Illumio, answered a series of questions Xconomy sent to tech industry leaders and others whose work touches on technological innovation. (Illumio aims to protect data centers and cloud computing environments by restricting unauthorized communications among applications.)

Here’s an edited transcript of Cohen’s e-mail exchange with Xconomy:

Xconomy: Do you think 2017 was a turning point in public attitudes toward technology and the tech industry?

Alan Cohen: 2017 was a year when the foundation of trust in technology was seriously eroded: both by the attacks on our political system as well as the well-publicized hacks on specific companies and government institutions. Consumers are highly sensitized to risks to their identity and financial resources, even if they are not completely sure what to do about it.

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

AC: Blind trust in the benefits of the Internet or use of Web-based applications are under severe pressure. Moreover, businesses are questioning the security practices of the companies they do business with, adding a new layer of inspection and scrutiny.

X: If attitudes toward tech have changed for the worse, what were the events that brought about these attitude changes, or solidified them?

AC: The daily circus of hacks and media (reports) on the (resulting) threats to digital institutions would be a good start. I’m referring to the near-daily coverage of major data breaches. These include both government organizations but also private technology companies. With more and more of these stories filling people’s feeds, public perceptions and trust in the tech sector is on the decline. It’s the mentality of: “If they can’t protect their own data, why would I trust them with mine?”

X: Has the public perception of tech improved in some ways? If so, how and why?

AC: A lot of the new positives in tech are from newer industries: self-driving cars, A.I., space exploration, and biotechnology. Information technology is an underlying support system for these new areas, but does not necessarily share the halo.

X: Have your personal patterns of technology usage changed as a result of something that happened in 2017, or in recent years? If so, how?

AC: I do not trust anything. I use multi-factor authentication on consumer apps, and would rather pair my laptop with my cell phone rather than use free open Wi-Fi, even with a VPN.

My phone has a “Personal Hotspot” feature that allows me to use it to connect to the Internet on a nearby device. So I activate the hotspot and then connect my laptop to the Internet through it. I avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi on both my laptop and phone, because the risk of doing so almost always outweighs the benefits.

X: Does the change in public attitudes show up in ways that could materially affect the tech industry? If so, how?

AC: If the populace loses faith or trust in the underlying digital infrastructure of our economy, they are less likely to rely on it. This means reverting to older, slower and more expensive methods of communications and commerce. It could literally take points off GDP growth.

X: Are you or your organization involved in efforts to make technology work better for consumers, citizens, students, patients, government leaders, non-profits, etc? What is that mission, and how is it going?

AC: We build the security that reduces risk to the bank vaults of digital commerce: the data center and cloud. Our business has grown dramatically by providing a level of security controls for organizations that were difficult at best, and nearly impossible at worst, through traditional technology.

X: Have changing public attitudes about the tech industry made your work or your mission easier or harder?

AC: Both.

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

Photo courtesy of Illumio.]

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