Over the last year, our relationship with digital technology has changed completely, and probably irrevocably. The pandemic has been bruising in many different ways, but it has been clear from the very start how important the internet has been as a tool to help us through it. Even just a few years ago, the behavioural shifts it enabled would not have been possible. From offices running on videoconferencing, to essential retail moving online, to digitally-delivered healthcare, many online tools that were once seen as promising growth areas or quality-of-life improving luxuries have come into their own as vital parts of everyday life.
Every big change in how we use technology, however, is followed sooner or later by a development in how we approach security and safety. This was true when the emergence of personal computers and ATMs led to education campaigns around the importance of PIN and password vigilance. It was true when the commoditisation of internet access created the need for consumer antivirus protection. It was even true when the automobile was first introduced, with cities rushing to introduce traffic signaling to manage that new high-speed flow.
Soon, then, we should expect to see another step in our collective attitude to security and privacy. What will that look like? For me, it should rest on a new sense of what is being protected, and new expectations about how that protection happens.
The work of threat research
To explain why, it’s worth understanding what the process of finding and fixing cybersecurity issues looks like. The first line of defence against attacks always happens during product development, when coders and engineers try to ensure that what they are creating is not vulnerable. The nature of cybersecurity, however, is that some problems will inevitably occur in finished products. That’s why there are also teams of people who analyse these products, independently testing whether they are truly safe.
At McAfee, our enterprise Advanced Threat Research (ATR) team has a long history and a strong track record of doing this testing. Often, the ATR team’s work is very similar to what people might imagine when they think of a ‘cybersecurity researcher’: it’s unpicking highly complex systems and tracing international criminal organisations responsible for attacks.
A lot of this work is much closer to home, though, and increasingly it deals with finding vulnerabilities not just in apps and computers, but in devices that few would think of as being a potential risk. The rise of the smart home means that many household items, from luxuries like exercise machines to basics like wall clocks, can also be internet-connected computers, tapping into the network to make life easier and better in a myriad of ways.
The ‘internet of things’, or IoT, has been a tech catchphrase for a long time, but it’s now a daily consumer reality too, with thermostats and air conditioners, security cameras and door locks, fridges and coffee machines all offering enhanced experiences through online connectivity. The security challenge lies in the fact that most people would view items like these just as a thermostat or as a door lock – not as a computer which requires protection. How, after all, do you install an antivirus service on a fridge?
Evolving the consumer security mindset
Combined with the increase of online activity we’ve all experienced over the last year, this requires more than widening consumers’ current thinking about security to include more devices. It requires a whole new approach. When the average household had one or two computers, it made sense to think of cybersecurity in terms of protecting the device. When any item in a home could also be an internet access point, we need to start thinking instead in terms of protecting people and families.
A big part of that will be expecting more of the companies who design and supply these devices. When the ATR team – or another threat research team – finds a flaw in a consumer device, step one is always to contact the manufacturer and work with them to fix it before malicious actors spot the opportunity. Many businesses behave responsibly, responding openly and collaboratively, developing a solution, and rolling it out as quickly as possible. Not all businesses are so conscientious. How businesses react to security problems should be a much bigger part of how we choose what to purchase.
Going back to the car, the traffic light was not the final safety innovation we saw. Over the last century, growing regulations and awareness led to a situation where, today, purchasers are likely to inspect a vehicle’s safety ratings before handing over their cash. In just the same way, attitudes to cybersecurity need to keep evolving – and soon, we may even be asking car manufacturers about how they respond to vulnerability disclosures.
The pandemic was a leap forward in how far digitalised our lives have become. Companies and customers alike now need to think carefully about what we need to talk about when we talk about making our online lives safe, secure, and private.