Can you trust anything in a digital world?  No! (Trust series)

Many readers ask if they can trust anything in a digital world. By that, we mean any person or company that interacts with us via the Internet. We are preparing a series of Trust articles, and as this is the first, we need to set a few ground rules.

What is trust in the real world?

Human-to-human connection is the basis of trust. Let’s be blunt – it is a gut feeling. In the Western world, it is an implicit feeling that the other party will behave according to accepted moral and social mores and uphold legal standards. For example:

  • If you go to the shop, you trust it to deal fairly and warrant the goods under Australian Consumer Law (in a digital world, that expectation is all too frequently ignored).
  • If you drive on the road, you trust other drivers know how to drive, obey traffic laws, and not drink/drug drive (in a digital world, no laws define your trust in others).
  • And you have the right to privacy and private enjoyment in your home (which does not apply in the digital world).

Realise, too, that your definition of trust could be very different from others (trust in a country of millions is very different from trust in a country of billions).

What is trust in a digital world?

Let’s start with a recent case of Uber using spyware to steal exfiltrate confidential data from GoCatch, an online taxi booking company.

Uber admitted in Court that it was ‘not honourable, but lawful’. It took GoCatch’s private driver information because ‘It was not akin to burglary because GoCatch had insufficient security protection.’

So, stealing from a home with an unlocked front door is legal? Pull the other one!

The first definition of trust in the digital world is that there is no trust. At least you cannot be disappointed!

To paraphrase the World Economic Forum, The digital realm has become a ‘wild west’ of uncertainty. With the advancement of powerful new technologies such as large language models (LLMs), artificial intelligence (AI), deep-fakes, purposeful disinformation, cybercrime and scams. The traditional concept of trust is not viable in today’s online world.

The root of all evil is the word ‘free’

In the digital world, your personal data is the real currency. ‘Use our free app and agree to our privacy policy (and we will monetise your data).’

Of the US$600 billion 2023 online advertising spend (by comparison, print, radio, TV, billboard, and catalogue advertising spend was $300 billion):

  • Facebook et al. is not a social media platform to keep up with the family. It is a cleverly constructed, highly addictive drug to suck up your data, massage it and monetise the results for US$132 billion in 2023 advertising revenue (estimated to be $170 billion in 2024).
  • TikTok is not a clever video clip platform. Its advertising revenue will hit US$17.2 billion. Unless Western ownership bans are implemented, it has the fastest growth path of any platform.
  • Google makes it abundantly clear that its main business is advertising. In 2023, it had US$238 billion in advertising revenue. TikTok and other social media platforms are affecting its revenue growth rate.
  • Amazon is not just a place to buy things. Its advertising revenue in 2023 was US$170 billion. However, it claims that its 15 new AI-based advertising tools will ‘enhanced audience insights and advanced campaign planning, activation, and optimisation controls to help advertisers more efficiently reach relevant audiences and drive meaningful business outcomes’.

Not only that your every online activity is relentlessly tracked and again monetised via advertising brokers.

The video below is a few years old but it gives you an idea of what you are sharing in an online world.

Disinformation is rampant

Social media (I blame that for all the world’s ills) can also positively or negatively influence your perceptions. Frankly, with the profiling that tech giants do, you only get news that they think you want to see anyway.

For example, the Chinese Communist Party ‘finances’ (usually indirectly via Chinese companies) some 100 (not verified) Australian social media influencers operating across 38 languages. Why? It is part of China’s ‘foreign disinformation operation’ (also called Influence Operation – IO). This works on the premise that by bombarding an audience for long enough with the same narratives, people will tend to believe them. Read Microsoft Digital Threats from East Asia Report – chilling.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports, ‘… identified dozens of similar accounts with over 10 million followers and subscribers. The profiles often belong to Chinese state media reporters who have transformed their Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and YouTube accounts—platforms largely blocked in China—and begun identifying themselves as “bloggers,” “influencers,” or non-descript “journalists.”

Why is Australia lagging in building digital trust?

Digital Planet has an interactive map of world economies and their positions on Digital evolution and Digital trust. By every metric, we are rated at the bottom of the ‘Stall Out’ segment (digital advancement while exhibiting slowing momentum).

In part, that is because we stick to the traditional trust metrics – we are too comfortable – making Australia a prime ‘gullible’ target for cybercriminals and online scams. Bluntly put, “Bad things happen to nice people.”

CyberShack’s view – Can you trust anything in a digital world – no

This initial article in the Trust series started by trying to define real-world trust and apply that to the digital world. We failed. Why?

Trust in the real world is easy. Trust in the digital world without rules, laws, expectations, or sheriffs is hard. That means people and companies will get away with what they can, as long as they can.

We are not talking about Google, Microsoft, Apple, et al., as they know they need to build digital trust or their days are numbered.

We mostly know people (because a staggering 69% of Aussies have had their trust abused) who have:

  • Been victims of digital scammers.
  • Ordered online and did not receive the goods but had their credit card details stolen and used illegally.
  • Been victims of data breaches and identity theft.
  • Adopted views influenced by disinformation, contrary to what their background would indicate.
  • Believe and or act on fake news.
  • In the case of children being subject to appalling cyberbullying, hate speech, child grooming and sexual abuse.
  • Been trolled to the point of contemplation of suicide.
  • Influenced to take up a fad diet, self-harm, or outlandish ‘train riding’, etc.
  • Gone broke with online gambling and gaming.
  • Radicalised to a terrorist cause.

Unfortunately, that will require global agreement and legislation, as whatever we do in Australia can only apply to Australian people and companies.

Further reading

Online scams fool even the best of us. What to look out fo

Stay safer online – simple steps for home or mobile security

Only a Digital ID will stop scams and Identity Theft

Trend Micro ID Protection Advanced – no ID theft for you

Protecting Your Online Identity: Understand the Crucial Measures

2023 Norton Cyber Safety Report – the Wild, wild, web

Norton Genie – a free and easy way to help identify cyberscams

Norton Identity Advisor – protect your identity from theft

How to minimise the risk of smart phone snooping