Consumer security awareness is on the rise in America. We should be grateful for that because apathy has a habit of breeding bad outcomes — for businesses, governments, and individuals.
But public engagement is still not where it should be. Only one-third of Americans said defending against cyberattacks should be a top priority for the federal government in 2021, for example. When poor security is now costing lives, interrupting food supply chains, driving up the cost of gas, and interfering in our democratic process, why don’t we care more?
There’s no easy answer. But to break out of this cycle we need to refocus security as a collective effort. That means action must be taken across government, private sector, and consumer spheres.
Threats are everywhere.
Security threats on the rise across the US and the world. They take many forms — from government cyber espionage to ransomware, personal data theft, and fraud. COVID-19 has provided huge opportunity for the multitrillion-dollar cybercrime economy to expand even further. Global ransomware attacks soared 150% year-on-year in 2020, with the average extortion amount doubling. In the US, Q3 2021 saw the number of recorded data breaches pass the figure for the whole of 2020, with estimates predicting a record year.
Yet consumers are too often desensitized by what they read in the news, and the security and fraud alerts that flash up on their screens. We say one thing — that we’d walk away from a brand following a breach — but when it comes down to it many of us actually do nothing. That only encourages businesses to prioritize cost and convenience over security.
Part of the problem is that many organizations run uninspiring security awareness and training programs for staff, or no courses at all. According to Gartner, 60% of large firms will have a full-time equivalent dedicated to training by 2022. But that leaves some major gaps.
The result is that large swathes of the population aren’t actively thinking about cybersecurity. We abdicate responsibility to security teams — in our organization and those working inside the manufacturers and service providers seeking our custom.
Bringing it home.
Yet security is having an even greater impact on all of our lives. How many waited for hours for gas when Colonial Pipeline was struck by ransomware? How many have had personal and financial details swiped in breaches like Equifax or Capital One, or spent countless hours trying to get their identity and credit rating back? How many have directly lost money in a dating or investment scam? According to the FBI, the former cost victims over $600m in 2020.
We’ve even seen how greater public engagement can force companies to make improvements. Privacy concerns post-Cambridge Analytica forced Facebook to make major changes to the way it operates. It’s certainly not perfect, but the company is much improved today. A public backlash against privacy-invading smart home assistants also forced greater transparency from the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon, and more control for users.
Yet too often, when it comes to cybersecurity, we all still expect someone else to fix the problem. It’s doubtful whether a single issue could ever cause such collective and immediate pain as to drive wholesale changes.
Making cybersecurity mainstream.
The current administration is doing its best to promote greater responsibility among the private sector via a “whole of nation” approach to cybersecurity. But for this to truly work, we also need to include consumers in the conversation. They can no longer be passive observers of events. This can be done. Here are three key pillars, all of which are essential to creating positive change:
- States can pass stronger cybersecurity laws: California’s Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (“lemon law”), contains a section that applies to electronics costing more than $100. The manufacturer must make replacement parts available even after a warranty period expires. This should be expanded to require technology devices to have sufficient memory and data storage capacity to handle security updates, and to establish standards for when and how updates must be provided. Ideally and by default, updates should be applied with minimal consumer intervention. Unfortunately, at this time, measures like this will have to be a state-by-state effort.
- The private sector must set higher standards: In the same way they responded to government requirements that electronic devices be more environmentally friendly, companies need to plan for a “security lifecycle” that extends beyond the 0-, 90-, or 365-day warranties typical of many consumer electronics. Forward-thinking vendors should also establish an industry association certification for devices that meets a published security standard.
- Companies must proactively engage consumers: Customers need to be brought into the conversation. In the past, greater awareness has led to consumers demanding products that are more recyclable, and less harmful to the environment. Businesses can help create a similar consumer security demand by developing an industry standard with a designated certification logo for products and packaging, as mentioned above.
The bottom line: technology is now wrapped too tightly in the nation’s economic and social fabric to ignore. We need to get better at protecting and preventing it from being a conduit for criminality. That makes cybersecurity everyone’s problem today. And, likewise, improving it is now everyone’s job.