Business Unusual

The tools that were supposed to make life easier could be putting us at risk

A phone, a PC, a TV, a car - odds are you have one and odds are you have no idea how they work.

If they broke down today, your principal remedy is to get a new one or take it back to the manufacturer. You would be unable to fix it. Apple sells that as a feature.

You might imagine that the WannaCry ransomware program that is reported to have infected hundreds of thousands of machines in over 200 countries was the work of some evil genius, yet the creators relied a lot more on unsuspecting email recipients clicking a promising looking link and a machine that had not been updated to fix a known issue that was addressed months earlier.

The tools we use, most of which are electronic, will ultimately increase our risk of harm if we don’t do something. This is the opposite intention to improve convenience and efficiency.

You would not allow anyone to be permitted to drive a car without first having passed a test to ensure they were competent. It might seem bizarre to suggest that using an email program should require the same thing, until you consider that the ransomware attack locked the patient files on PCs used by the British health services. If not simply a significant loss of information and a costly effort to correct, it could have endangered lives.

We don’t think about it that way for two reasons. Technology is designed to be easy to use and we tend to overrate our own abilities.

Simple technology

A mobile phone was a breakthrough because it allowed you to take and make calls away from your landline and while moving!

For a while, that was enough, then phone makers needed to add something extra to get you to buy their latest phone.

When the iPhone was launched in 2007 it was another huge leap in what the phone could do. It was designed to be simple to use despite the very complex way it functioned.

That process has been taking place with everything. It has now reached the point where, despite the devices appearing easy to use, our lack of understanding of how they work is placing us at risk to ourselves and others.

The simplest illustration is a password. A simple tool to limit access to your information. As more of your life is online and connected, a password protects more than you realise, yet we treat it with the same seriousness as a combination lock on a briefcase set to 123 456.

You might be horrified to know that one of the most popular electronic passwords is still “123456”. Actually, you might not know that, which is the second part of the problem.

We don’t know how little we know.

YouTuber Jack Vale demonstrates of how little we realise we share and how much can be learnt from it.

You would not try fly a plane because you know you can’t or at least that you should not, but most of the tools you will interact with are created to give you the impression that you could simply work it out. You may get it to work at a basic level but without knowing how it is supposed to be used properly you may believe you are an advanced user simply because you have been using it for a long time.

The implication for us and business is that while we were supposed to be a company’s greatest asset, a growing group of us are becoming a liability.

This is not about blaming you or anyone else for getting us here, but rather a warning that we can’t keep doing what we are doing without expecting some potentially very bad things to happen.

Here are three things that will help reduce the threat.

  • Technology creators need to look after people not devices
  • We have to do training to understand how the systems we use work even if only to know how to identify threats
  • Start paying for services rather than surrender your privacy

Technology creators need to look after people, not devices

A phone that can take amazing pictures is as good as a brick if the user does not know how to use it. So much of what is selling technology is flashy features and cheap deals with the principal after sales being a link to a long legal document you need to accept and training manuals that (it appears) even the writers did not read.

We have to do training to understand how the systems we use work even if only to know how to identify threats

Manufactures need to be required to create videos with the same production values as those made to sell the products to show you how to use it and what might expose you to risk. Users will need to show they have at least watched the videos with a potential warranty extension benefit for those that also complete a proficiency test.

Corporates need to assume that even if staff claim proficiency they should be retested and retrained if necessary to prove they have the needed skill level. Any new versions or products and it must be retaken.

Start paying for services rather than surrender you privacy

The web was built with a dream for giving everyone access. That became an assumption that everything should be free. It never referred to hardware or data costs. The industries that first tried to capitalise on the growing number of users on the web happened to be ad supported businesses like the media and it initially offered much bigger audiences for media companies to continue making money from advertising. Except that Google in 1997 made search a better fit and Facebook in 2004 created the real online destination for ads.

Other services hoping to be the next Facebook offer services free until they have enough market share to get their most loyal to pay. But until you do pay, you are the product.

Anger at companies like Unroll.me who sell their users data will continue even though they do declare it in their lengthy terms.

It does not require a lot to avoid the trouble though to enjoy the advantages of making the most of the incredible services and tools that exist.

Some simple steps to peace of mind:

  • Use a password manager
  • Seek negative reviews of products you might want to try to balance the marketing material
  • Uninstall services if you test them and no longer use them
  • Use fewer services opting to rather choose the paid for best in class options
  • Check the state of your account with Google, Apple and Microsoft periodically
  • Be sceptical unless you find evidence it's from a consistent source
  • Accept that you will never know how all systems work, but you should know how people work - incredible promises mean it's likely a scam.
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