Cyber-attacks on personal privacy and the corporate world are at the top of the worry list at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, where delegates at a forum on data protection were reminded that the digital revolution carries as many threats as rewards.
Growing concerns about personal privacy being compromised by government intelligence bodies, such as the United States National Security Agency (NSA), were tackled by a panel of experts at a WEF session entitled ‘The Big Brother Problem’.
Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty said the right to privacy is “one of the defining issues of our times” and went on to attack “open-ended fishing expeditions” by governments.
Bradford Smith, general counsel at Microsoft, said the internet giant regularly challenged requests for information through the courts, but admitted it did not always win. “We will do what we are ordered to do by governments if we lose our case,” he said.
But while governments were condemned for wading through swathes of personal data in search of tidbits of information, the panel was short on answers to the problem apart from reforming national laws to blunt the attacks.
Data protection, at home in Switzerland
In the meantime, a proliferating number of specialist cyber security firms are filling the legislative vacuum, such as Geneva-based WISeKey that provides secure cloud computing and digital encryption services for internet and iPhone traffic.
Its latest innovations will be unveiled at the WEF Davos summit’s traditional Swiss Night, which showcases the latest technology coming out of Switzerland.
“The problem is that the internet was never designed to be a secure environment but we now use it for practically everything,” WISeKey founder and chief executive Carlos Moreira told swissinfo.ch. “The market is huge and will continue to grow at a rapid rate.”
“Our Swiss brand is very important to us because clients value Swiss neutrality and strong data protection legislation.”
A Swiss location is also important to makers of a new secure phone that will soon hit the markets called Blackphone. Created by Spanish company Geeksphone and the US-based encryption firm Silent Circle, the new Blackphone commercial entity has been registered in Geneva.
“Switzerland is the place to be to guarantee data protection,” Blackphone co-founder Rodrigo Silva-Ramos told swissinfo.ch.
The newly designed version of the Android telephone will boast built-in encryption software and a VPN wi-fi connection that erases cookies. “We need to re-evaluate the balance between security and privacy,” said Silva-Ramos. “At present all the power is on the protection side so this phone project will give citizens more power to protect their privacy.”
The desire for greater protection against snoopers is not just confined to individuals. Corporations are also increasingly in need of technology to keep their commercial secrets out of the hands of industrial hackers.
Technological advances like cloud computing and big data could create up to $21.6 trillion (CHF19.6 trillion) in added value for the world’s economy by 2020, according to a WEF report. But that is only if companies can keep one step ahead of the criminals.
The cost of online fraud, identity theft and lost intellectual property revenues to the global economy is estimated at up to $1 trillion, according to internet security specialist MacAfee and the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies. That figure could triple by 2020 unless companies step up their defences, according to WEF researchers.
Some 69% of the 250 executives interviewed by WEF for its report feared that cyber attackers would remain more sophisticated and efficient than their companies’ defence mechanisms. With a large multinational company expecting up to 10,000 cyber-attacks per day, nearly 40% of firms surveyed thought their spending on defences was “significantly too little”.
WEF Davos summit
The WEF was started by Klaus Schwab in 1971 at Davos, initially under the name “European Management Symposium”.
It was designed to connect European business leaders to their counterparts in the United States to find ways of boosting connections and solving problems.
It is a non-profit organisation with headquarters in Geneva and is funded by the varying subscription fees of its members.
The forum took its current name in 1987 as it broadened its horizons to provide a platform for finding solutions to international disputes. WEF claims to have helped calm disputes between Turkey and Greece, North and South Korea, East and West Germany and in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
WEF conducts detailed global and country-specific reports and conducts other research for its members. It also hosts a number of annual meetings – the flagship being Davos at the beginning of each year.
Seeking solutions in the world of physics
Some companies have started turning to quantum physics to give them an edge in the cat-and-mouse game against cyber attackers.
Geneva-based firm ID Quantique has utilised the laws of quantum physics to provide a new version of encryption that defies conventional attempts at hacking. By sending photons along opitical fibres to a receiver, the users of the new encryption device can detect any attempts to intercept the message.
“A communication link is like a tennis game,” ID Quantique chief executive Gregoire Ribordy told swissinfo.ch. “A third party can intercept the ball, read the information and send it along its way without anyone noticing.”
“Our system is the equivalent of replacing the tennis ball with soap bubbles. As soon as someone tries to tamper with the bubble it will burst, and that will be detected.”
The NSA is thought to be utilising quantum physics to develop supercomputers that could solve mathematical problems much faster than conventional methods, making it easier to process vast amounts of data.
Switzerland is also keeping pace with the new technology by bringing together a group of quantum scientists under the umbrella of the National Centre of Competence in Research for Quantum Science and Technology, with the battle between espionage and counter-measures expected to rage for decades.