Cyber insecurity month

Every October is National Cyber Security Month, a time to remind Americans to be safe online. But it’s hard to blame Americans if lately they don’t feel that secure. The daily drip, drip, drip of privacy violations, security flaws, manipulation and examples of everyone from Jihadis to content thieves to opioid dealers freely using digital platforms can feel overwhelming.

Take two recent revelations. Facebook kicked off the month by revealing a security breach that threatens the accounts of 50 million Americans. Not to be outdone, Google exposed the private data of users last March – but choose not to disclose it out of fear that it would take the reputational hit or get investigated.

ADVERTISEMENT

And the beat goes on. Two years after the 2016 elections fraught with foreign manipulation and sale of personal data to Cambridge Analytica, Americans are bombarded with repeated examples of how digital platforms are used by terrorist groups, criminals and other bad actors.

It doesn’t feel like much has changed since 2016. Except two things:

Trust in digital platforms has dropped considerably, according to a Digital Citizens survey. Seventy-two percent report that their trust in the platform has declined in the last year. Only 1 in 3 believe that Google and Facebook are responsible companies. A majority believes these companies should be regulated.

Congress and federal and state authorities are fed up. The Federal Trade Commission has launched a series of hearings to investigate privacy implications. State attorneys general have signaled that anti-trust enforcement may be the best approach to curbing the abuse and power of tech giants.

Perhaps the most symbolic reflection of where Google stands with Congress was an empty chair. When Google refused to appear before a Senate Intelligence Committee on election meddling, the panel left an empty chair with the company’s name on it. The blowback was immediate. “Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion,” said Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Year Ahead: Tech braces for new scrutiny from Washington Senate Intel leaders ask judge not to jail former aide amid leak investigation The Year Ahead: Pressure mounts on election security as 2020 approaches MORE (D-Va.).

What must Google and Facebook do to get this right?

First, own up to the problems. This daily drip must stop. It’s time for them to provide a comprehensive report on the state of their platforms. Come clean and air the dirty laundry so Americans have a real sense of the problem.

Second, provide Congress and state public officials such as attorneys general a briefing on how their business model works. The digital platforms make tens of billions of dollars by scraping consumer data and monetizing. Provide a detailed explanation of how that monetization works and how consumers’ data is used.

Third, stop viewing the criminals who use their platforms as a PR problem that has to be messaged and more as a security and safety problem that has to be fixed. And that fix includes taking responsibility. It’s simply not good enough that Google and Facebook remove illicit content when they are alerted.

Fourth, create “Platform Neutrality” principles that assure that smaller companies at the fringes of the digital networks aren’t squashed because they eat into the tech giants’ plans for more revenues. Recently, Digital Citizens posed a question at a Capitol Hill panel to the audience: is it possible for another company to compete against the Google and Facebook? Not a single hand was raised.

Will this be enough? It’s a good starting point, and perhaps the last chance the platforms have before either the federal government or state AGs decide to take matters into their own hands and regulate or break up the companies.

More importantly, Google and Facebook should take these steps because they are the right thing to do and they are truly interested in cyber security.

Speaking of cyber security month, here’s a tip: cover the video camera on your computer. Criminals use digital platforms to spread malware and other viruses that can take over your computer camera without your knowledge.

Tom Galvin is executive director of Digital Citizens Alliance.