Cybersecurity and data security become mainstream concerns

2017 will be the year that cybersecurity and data ownership will become mainstream development issues.  

Digital products and services will continue to be critical to achieve and surpass global development targets, including the Sustainable Development Goals. A new study boldly forecasts that by 2030 more than 700,000 lives could be saved from road traffic accidents by cars that communicate with each other through the internet. 1.6 billion people are also forecast to benefit from e-healthcare. 

The unprecedented collection of personal data in low- and middle-income countries, including biometric identification, health status and financial information, is generating new insights and filling the gap of public statistics. Development actors will be able to better target need and design appropriate, responsive services. 

Yet, these advances also create vulnerabilities: 431 million adults are affected by cybercrime globally and fraud attempts using mobiles increased 173% from 2013 to 2015. The most vulnerable countries are those with little investment in digital security and a large online population. Low-income countries also have the lowest cybersecurity readiness, which puts poor populations’ remittances, transfers and savings at risk.

Cyberattacks aren’t the only concern: governments are debating whether to allow their citizens free internet access that is limited to certain services, and weighing how and when to allow researchers and public health officials to access mobile phone records to combat disease outbreaks. Already, analysis of anonymised mobile phone usage can fairly accurately (~80%) predict age, gender or marital status.

As these tools get more sophisticated, the policy questions become more important. Low- and middle-income countries have more to gain, but are also at greater risk of exploitation. It’s not clear that existing recommendations for boosting cybersecurity are appropriate or practical for low- and middle-income countries, meaning that new approaches are needed.  Technology could be part of the solution, like the blockchain coding method used in refugee camps to create economic identities for displaced people. Since blockchain technology allows for anonymity and transparency, refugees can choose to reveal only as much about themselves as required for their transaction.

Development agencies and funders need to support smart cybersecurity and plan for cybersecurity needs in the work we do. This includes:

  • Developing organisational awareness and capabilities to address sophisticated cybersecurity, data privacy and ownership questions.
  • Having standards around data collection and sharing that consider the harm of intentional or unintentional release.
  • Communicating clearly how collected data will be used in contexts where differences in literacy or access to information may make it challenging for people to release their data based on informed consent. 
  • Support the provision and enforcement of regulations that recognise the benefits of big data but also protect the privacy and data ownership of individuals in low- and middle-income countries.