It’s hard predicting the future, but the last few years have made medium-term predictions even more of a lottery. The global pandemic has heightened the possibility of livelihood and debt crises, while wars in different parts of the world have increased the risk of geopolitical confrontations. Yet, one of the more predictable risks comes in the form of advancing technology.
From the internet and smartphones to cloud computing and AI, technology has revolutionised the way we interact, work, shop and generally live our lives, but not everyone experiences the tech revolution equally. With an estimated three billion people still offline, including two-thirds of school-age children, wide digital divides exist between countries, cities and communities. For example, access to online schooling during the pandemic varied depending on computer access and broadband speed and many poorer students were being left behind.
However, digital inequality is not just about collective access to networks and software but also how people function online due to varied knowledge, digital skills, and devices. An individual with no digital training that relies on a mobile device to access the internet will not have the same capital-enhancing opportunities as a digitally literate person with a computer.
It’s like reading and writing. We need to understand technology, but these kinds of skills and competences are not integrated in basic education in most countries.
For Matías Dodel, a digital inequalities expert at Universidad Católica del Uruguay, it’s a question of digital literacy.
“It’s like reading and writing. We need to understand technology, but these kinds of skills and competences are not integrated in basic education in most countries,” Dodel points out.
If left unaddressed, he says there could be huge societal repercussions. “If only richer, well-located people take part in the digital sphere, they will have more positive tangible outcomes than underprivileged social groups and suffer fewer negative consequences of internet use, such as scams and dangerous sites, further increasing digital inequality.”
Rapid digitisation also comes at a security cost. According to the WEF, cybersecurity failure is one of the top medium-term risks (14.6%) with scams, malware, malicious domains and fake news the most common cyber threats. In 2020, for example, malware and ransomware attacks rose by 358% and 435% respectively.
“The spread of the internet of things and digital devices is rapidly increasing the attack surfaces of government, business and citizens,” says Robert Muggah, Principal at SecDev Group. “These risks are increasing as a result of growing dependence on digital systems and were increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of a wholesale shift to remote work and life.”
Low barriers to entry for cyber criminals combined with more aggressive tactics and a lack of trained cybersecurity professionals has also increased the risk of cyberattacks on individual and state actors, but not all have the same level of protection.
While Western governments, corporations and citizens have started to prepare for these digital risks, the problem is exacerbated in developing economies. “Some countries have protection if there are attacks on their critical infrastructure, but poorer countries don’t have the resources,” says Dodel. “The police don’t have the tools to protect citizens from cybercrime in countries like Uruguay, but richer countries have units dedicated to cyber defence.”
Without intervention, cyber threats and digital inequalities can stoke societal divisions, erode trust in governments and impede the mitigation of wider environmental and economic risks. Yet, the WEF found that only 2% of security experts think current efforts to curtail cyberattacks and misinformation are effective. There is clearly a need for government action – such as greater multilateral cooperation on cyber rule-setting and better social media regulation to tackle misinformation – but what role can corporations play?
The spread of the internet of things and digital devices is rapidly increasing the attack surfaces of government, business and citizens.
“The most critical element to addressing digital inequality is integrating digital literacy into basic education,” says Dodel. “By working with local groups and local governments, corporations can co-develop digital skills programmes that are adapted for those that don’t work in the formal economy or speak English. Big companies can also help fund teachers’ digital training, provide teachers with necessary resources and support internet access in rural locations.”
For example, the Turkish Employers Association of Metal Industries (MESS) established a technology centre in 2020 to provide digital literacy training to 250,000 people over five years.
What’s more, Muggah believes that “companies can develop basic principles about digital harms, form alliances to push back, support digital rights groups that are advocating for responsible regulation and improve their own digital defences.”
Given that corporations employ, interact and hold data on millions of individuals across the world, they hold a unique role in minimising the technological risks of tomorrow.
This is the second story of a 3-part series analysing WEF’s global risks report. Read the first story here.