As fake news advances agendas, manipulation of the public discourse is likely to become the ultimate cyber risk. Photo: Pixabay

CAPE TOWN – In 2019 we will more than ever realise the importance of data. We live in a highly connected world, where every new smart device connected to the Internet generates data. New technologies like the popular voice-controlled speakers, the numerous embedded "Internet of Things" (IoT) sensors, connected cars, smarts beds with their 8.5 billion data points per night, fitness wearables, and other smart devices, are hugely increasing the amount of digital data we produce.

The millions of connected devices led to an exponential growth of data. Over time we have progressed from the digital age (2000) to the connected age (2010) and eventually to the data age (2020). As we progress from the connected age to the data age, business decisions are increasingly supported by data. As Steve Koenig, Vice-President of market research for the Consumer Technology Association said at the start of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas: "Everywhere you go, data is going to be the common denominator."

For this very reason, data value management is a matter that will dominate discussions the next 3-5 years. In 2019 companies will have to learn how to extract value from data, while still respecting the privacy of consumers. Today, almost every sizeable company has access to huge volumes of data. Unfortunately not all companies are using it wisely. What we do with the data available to us, most often defines the business models of the future. The value of the data may even surpass the value of the traditional revenue activities of the company.

Let us take a company that sells GPS devices as an example. Their main revenue is currently generated from selling the devices, and to a lesser extent, maps and live traffic reports. But due to the implementation of intelligent systems they can easily connect the billions of data points to each other. They know who the owners are since they have to register on the company website for map updates, where they are living, where they usually are going and coming from, and at what time, as well as the places they frequent. If they enrich this data they could establish a completely new business model and revenue stream by making it available to other businesses for more targeted service delivery. The data thus becomes the primary source of value and not the selling of GPS devices.

Companies that will survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will not be those that succeed in the digital transformation, but those that succeed in managing the value of their data and are able to re-engineer their business models to create new revenue streams.

There is little doubt that data is a powerful resource, but in the wrong hands or in the hands of companies with no ethical values, it can be a devastating tool and can even threaten world peace.

Fake news stories worldwide are at the order of the day and are flooding social media. Many of these stories are state-sponsored or supported by political groups. Towards the end of last year some of the creators of horrendous fake news stories in South Africa were exposed, but this is a mere drop in the ocean. The lines between fake and real have become blurred and it is increasingly difficult to discern what the truth is.

We will thus see in 2019 and onwards that fake news more and more will be used to manipulate the public discourse. This general trend will be exacerbated by the coming election in South Africa. Various groups will use fake news to advance their own agendas. The ultimate cyber risk is perhaps not the threat of hacking our systems and stealing our data, but rather the manipulation of the public discourse. According to Andrew Tsonchev, director of technology at cyber security company Darktrace Industrial, "Controlling data may soon become more important than stealing it."

Due to the incredible advancement of technology, 2019 will also see more of a new development in fake news, namely “deepfakes” or manipulated digital videos that overlay another person's face onto a body or change what people actually said. Tools – such as the widely used MadLipz App – to produce these deepfakes are widely available on the Web and in App stores. 

The problem is that technology is getting so advanced that it becomes progressively difficult to recognize deepfakes even with advanced digital forensic tools. To the person in the street it is becoming almost impossible to distinguish between fake and real news. It would thus not be unthinkable that a malicious deepfake video may spark a geopolitical incident in 2019 when a political leader ”makes” damaging statements with potentially devastating results. 

Another trend that is beginning to emerge in 2019 is that consumers will start to reclaim control of their personal data and monetise it. Due to the popularity of online streaming, smart watches, smart phones, and tracking devices in our cars, huge amounts of personal data exist. Until now we had little control over it, but this is slowly changing, as systems are currently being developed to allow consumers to control their health, financial, social and entertainment data effectively. These systems will put the control back in the hands of the individual, who can then decide whether they want to share their personal data with third parties at a certain rate or not.

It is quite possible that blockchain may come to the assistance of identity management in the next few years. In the financial markets, blockchain-based platforms are widely used of which the most well known is crypto currencies. Most of the major cybersecurity incidents that have transpired in the last few years, like the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, have involved breaches of people’s personal identity information.

If identity management could be moved into the blockchain environment, it could offer a possible solution to many of the current challenges around identity management, and in addition open a complete new value chain, centred on identity. Blockchain’s high levels of encryption and the scattered nature of data in a distributed ledger will provide the much-needed security of personal data.

Since it will be possible for individuals to really own and control their online identity and data, new value chains could develop enabling individuals to allow third parties to selectively use some of their attributes in interactions or transactions. This could prove especially valuable in financial and health interactions.

Professor Louis Fourie is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Knowledge and Information Technology, Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The views expressed here are his.

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