The Integrated Online Society - do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Author: Marco C. Janssen, UTInnovation, the Netherlands

I have touched on the topic of cyber security and privacy risks in past columns, and I have talked about the two sides of security and privacy threats and the way we handle them.
For me there are the people who like to create fear, uncertainty and doubt to push their ideas around cyber security and on the other side of the spectrum there are the people who tend to ignore the risks associated with the modern online and fully integrated society.
During recent months we have seen increasing attention in the news about hacker attacks on all kinds of institutions, elections being influenced, fake news being used to influence public opinion, cyber espionage by countries and companies, cyber warfare, companies paying people to eavesdrop on communication to analyze their social media usage and many other stories about the cyber security and privacy risks associated with being online.
It makes me wonder whether we have accepted the fully integrated online society too quickly without considering the risks of integrating everything, or is it just the fact that it is so easily accessible that it drives us to use social media without considering the consequences?

I really wonder why many people seem to have no problem with sharing their most intimate details with the entire world without thinking what would happen if that information is made public?
Yes, there is a certain appeal to social media. The fact that one can communicate with family and friends from anywhere in the world is great. I use it regularly myself, but do we really have to share every piece of private information with everyone?
In this context I remember a story I read a couple of years ago where a researcher investigated how much could be found about random people online without infringing their privacy. The result was staggering as she was able to retrieve very sensitive and very detailed personal information without any hacking. The conclusion of the article was that we share more about ourselves than we realize, and in many cases, we do not know who is saving our data and for what purpose.

We should remember however, that once information has been put on the Internet it is there forever, and with the increasing ability of artificial intelligence to find and combine pieces of information posted online it is only a matter of time before someone, or something, puts the puzzle of your everyday life together to target specific individuals.
I am not trying to advocate paranoia, but as society gets more and more integrated and social media plays an increasing role in our everyday life, shouldn’t we start wondering who is running the organizations that offer us the social media solutions, what are their intentions, what are they doing with all the information we provide them, how can this information be used for positive things, but more importantly, how can this information be used to harm us?
I am not saying we should imagine conspiracies everywhere, but referring to what I have said many times, we need to think before we act. And most importantly, it’s time to think about the online society and consider how we want it to work for us.
Maybe we have already crossed too many borders to be able to fundamentally change the risky and dangerous sides of the integrated online society, and maybe the accessibility of information and the ease of use of social media outweigh the risks, but I think we should at least keep the discussion alive about social media, its purpose, its positive use for society, but also its risks and possible negative sides.  


Marco C. Janssen is the CEO of UTInnovation LLC and the Director of the Smart Grid PMO at the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. He received his BSc degree in Electrical Engineering from the Polytechnic in Arnhem, Netherlands and has worked for over 27 years in the field of Smart Grid, Protection, Control, Monitoring, Advanced Metering Infrastructures, Distribution and Substation Automation. He was a member of IEC TC57 WG 10, 17, 18, 19, the IEEE PES PSRC and CIGRE B5 and D2 WGs. He was the convenor of D2.35 and editor of the Quality Assurance Program for the Testing Subcommittee of the UCA International Users Group. He holds one patent, has authored more than 58 papers, is co-author of four Cigre Technical Brochures and two books on Smart Grids and Electrical Power Substations Engineering and is the author of the “I Think” column in the PAC World magazine.