June 4th, 2013
The rapid spread of digital access is impacting economies and governments throughout the world, changing the balance of power between citizens and states. In the next decade, 5B more people will join the Internet, largely in the developing world. What will people do with new mobile access? Here at home, is digital technology helping to make us more secure, or less? What about privacy—who gets to own our personal data?
According to Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google and co-author of The New Digital Age, the future for mobile technology users is fantastic. Regarding emerging services, he said, “Think of them as a perfectly intelligent digital assistant who can assist you in planning your life and helping you in every conceivable way.” He compared that with the change for people who currently have no information, no political freedom, no healthcare, and no digital entertainment. When they have access to mobile phones, he said, the change will be extraordinary. That was the change that he and co-author, Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas at Google, wanted to investigate in writing The New Digital Age.
Cohen spoke of traveling to 35 countries, largely those with unstable and autocratic governments, to “meet some of these new users who are coming online, and understand how the challenges are different from the 2B who are already connected.” Issues they encountered, which they address in their book, range from the future of dictatorships and autocracies, to how digital access would transform the terrorist threat.
Cohen was in Egypt the day the revolution broke out and went to speak with young people in the street. One boy told him that he had come out to risk his life in the street only because Hosni Mubarak had shut down the Internet. “It’s a clear lesson that if you’re an evil dictator,” Schmidt said, “you don’t shut down the Internet. You censor it, you filter it.” He added, “It’s remarkable how happy people can be when they’re ignorant of things they should be caring about.” Cohen spoke of the “dictator’s dilemma” of knowing what’s real, because people have more liberty in virtual space than in the real world.
Regarding terrorism, Cohen said that we typically separate cyber warfare and physical warfare. It’s the combination of the two we should fear—putting out the electricity through cyberspace, for example, then coming in with something physical but now undetected.
Does digital technology make us more secure? According to Cohen, it’s going to be very difficult to operate from a cave in Tora Bora, and every criminal or terrorist who opts into digital technology leaves a trail. He spoke of the cell phone found in the car-jacked car, which led to the Boston Marathon bombers. Both Cohen and Schmidt related other stories where the criminals posted photos of themselves engaging in crimes, which photos led to their captures. On the other hand, there is so much communications data available now, it’s overwhelming to track, and that could make us less safe.
Schmidt spoke of Google’s policy of letting people have access to their personal data and allowing them to delete their data at will. Cohen added that each generation of users is more willing than the last to share personal data. He said that parents need to teach children at a young age that what they do online has real-world consequences.