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Photo by Toa Heftibah

Digital Insecurities

The Unintended Consequences of Increased Cybersecurity

As we discover new technologies the uses can be explored for different types of use. Both the power of the most advanced computing and the need to protect or secure is proliferating. This race to the bottom or top has consequences as much as we talk about cybersecurity we should talk about digital insecurity with the bad consequences that may follow.

Mindmap on Digital Insecurity by Alex Moltzau

This display above is more of an ideal type and should not be taken at face value, it is of course more complex. Despite this I believe a closer look at these elements in a few steps could be useful, so I will proceed to explain further.

1 — Quantum Computers, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain

Quantum computers aren’t limited to two states; they encode information as quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in superposition. Qubits represent atoms, ions, photons or electrons and their respective control devices that are working together to act as computer memory and a processor.

Cybersecurity is the protection of internet-connected systems, including hardware, software and data, from cyberattacks. In a computing context, security comprises cybersecurity and physical security — both are used by enterprises to protect against unauthorised access to data centres and other computerized systems.

These last years speculations have been made as to whether quantum computing would be able to surpass current encryption methods. Quantum computers used for this nefarious purpose has been compared to nuclear bombs. It is not strange since you can hack through most secure systems. There are constant efforts to attempt protecting against advancing methods within hacking such as Spectre and Meltdown using side channels going between the ‘guessing’ of computers. There are efforts to stop this, but even advanced pioneering methods of protection brings energy usage up by more than 10% (clear improvement from 40–50%).

If we combine the three aspects of artificial intelligence:

  1. Learning (the acquisition of information and rules for using the information)
  2. Reasoning (using rules to reach approximate or definite conclusions)
  3. Self-correction

Together with increased processing power, we may understand the outlines of a potential security issue in regards to hacking attempts. There is a teleology (purpose served) inherent in development of algorithms particularly in connection to security concerns. This gives rise to the need for protection and could be said to contribute to the increase of recruitment within cybersecurity. According to one of the largest technology publications TechCrunch this seems to be a gigantic problem.

2 – Large scale encryption of infrastructure and resource use

A blockchain, originally block chain, is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. It is therefore by design resistant to modification of data. However as we may be able to understand this technology takes energy as well, and it has been criticised for this aspect of its usage.

Resource use is expected by UN Environment to double in 2050. Given this and if we consider the new arms race or technology race that is taking place it is not hard to think that it will contributing adversely. Minerals are needed for microchips, casings and other uses. Securing systems costs a high amount of energy and algorithms encountering each other may do so as well.

However with increased possibilities for hacking and computing power within the connectivity present in our society there is a potential for escalation on both sites with attacks and protection. This digital warfare is energy intense, and therefore without doubt carbon intense. The entire blockchain-based Bitcoin network consumes more energy than several countries.

A society thought to be world leading in digital security is Estonia with its e-Estonia initiative. Blockchain is integrated into most of the government systems, and it can therefore be said to be more secure, yet if we run all our infrastructure on these systems we have to question what it may lead to.

Yes there is development of new chips (hardware) for different purposes, however this will also require more minerals and likely more energy to run. Imagine what sort of protection or systems that may be needed to protect autonomous vehicles of any kind. It is an interesting thought experiment.

3 – Worsening the Current Climate Crisis

As I wrote in a previous article named AI for Good and AI for Bad we have to seriously consider the impact and contribution artificial intelligence has to worsening the climate crisis. Five percent of the global energy use today is by electronics, and the data centre industry is doing what it can to implement energy efficiency standards. Yet such as is the case with most climate-related consumption it is only partly a solution to approach operations.

If we take into consideration the combination with digital security through blockchain and risks posed by quantum computing and AI we are looking at a bleak picture. This includes a fear of protectionist policies in the US leading to a new recession at the end of 2020. We must admit that the increased spending by US, China, EU, Russia and other regions on artificial intelligence is partly due to its potential in warfare or dominance in various industries.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind […] It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
Vladimir Putin 1st September 2017 in RT

Our Digital Insecurity

As was said in the summary of Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s book Overheating: an anthropology of accelerated change:

We live in a time of global crisis — or, more appropriately, crises: overlapping, interlocking global problems that are inextricably tied to modernity.

I see Digital Insecurity to be yet another facet of this discussion. Eriksen suggests we need to cool down, however it begs the question of how? How do we become less digital or differently digital? Is it fair to think of digital consumption to a higher degree alongside changing habits in consumption of food, clothes, energy, transportation, etc.

The security and insecurity opposition is often invoked, however we have to be aware that this process is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. Decreased trust and increased defence raises a great challenge. This digital insecurity needs to be spoken about to a much higher degree than we are right now. Cybersecurity, blockchain, AI and the climate crisis are bound together into a chain of events we should predict as a clear risk to the survival of humanity.

This is day 17 of #500daysofAI, I hope you enjoyed it.

It is not a topic that is particularly joyous to discuss, yet we have to consider the consequences of digital insecurities for humans, animals and our shared environment.

What is #500daysofAI?

I am challenging myself to write and think about the topic of artificial intelligence for the next 500 days with the #500daysofAI. It is a challenge I invented to keep myself thinking of this topic and share my thoughts.

This is inspired by the film 500 Days of Summer where the main character tries to figure out where a love affair went sour, and in doing so, rediscovers his true passions in life.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.

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