That's a big deal

Computers are amazing machines

Because computers are so enormously powerful, we rely on them more and more, and the importance of their security limitations is therefore ever increasing. Computer storage has become virtually unlimited for everyday purposes, as storage hardware prices continue to decrease, and the use of online storage services continues to grow.
In addition, the internet has also exploded in capacity and reach. Almost every corner of the planet is connected all the time, with speed sufficient to exchange large documents, place video calls and collaborate remotely. Communication capabilities can now be built into any device so that every tiny IoT chip has a remote access to vastly superior resources for computation and storage.
And computers are not only amazing at quickly processing vast amounts of data, which is useful when processing repetitive tasks that can be outlined in a precise program; they’re also getting increasingly good at pattern recognition, where instead of a precise program for repetitive tasks we can now teach a degree of artificial intelligence to computers and enable them to extract specific information from unstructured data.

That now run significant parts of society

Because computers are so amazing, we now fully delegate key parts of operating our society to them. In the past few years, the internet has overtaken television as the preferred media for getting news in the US for example. And with social media, people can receive news that is tailored to their interests, communities and relevant to them, with the risk of creating echo chambers.
Businesses in general also rely heavily on computers and the internet, with between 20% to 30% of all business being conducted online nowadays. When it comes to payment, computers enable most transactions in mature markets, a trend only accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis. In Sweden and the Netherlands for example cash only enables 9% and 14% of the total payments volume respectively.
But it is perhaps when it comes to news and entertainment that the impact of computers is the strongest, with online content consumption doubling in 2020 to an incredible 7 hours per day. While a lot of that is no doubt attributable to global lockdowns, the distribution and consumption of content and entertainment now happens primarily online.

And are not personal anymore

In 2021, we rarely use computers alone, and while we might be alone in front of our computer, today the internet enables most communications between individuals. There is no need to remind anyone how important Zoom and other video calling services have become in our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. We meet people, we exchange ideas, we stay in touch with loved ones, all using interconnected computers.
And we entrust computers with much more than talking with colleagues and loved ones. These machines also keep track of our possessions today. Everyone’s bank balance is stored on a computer and has been for decades. Your insurance details, medical records, credit score, driver’s license records, tax payment history, the list goes on. Most of the things that you own, a computer owns for you.
Increasingly, computers make decisions on their own. Computers decide which movie, music, or product to recommend to you. They decide whether your credit card will be accepted for this online purchase you’re trying to make. They decide how to operate our electrical grid, our water networks, our traffic lights. They can even decide whether you should be fired. As we continue to entrust computers with decision-making, their lack of inherent security creates ever-increasing risks.

Practically

As we have learned to live with the limitations of computers, it can be difficult to understand how these limitations affect us, and it is useful to pause and wonder about how we do things.
A few months ago, a friend called me and asked me for advice. He wanted to outsource the production of a machine part that his engineers had designed but not yet manufactured. As they were about to send the 3D drawing file to the supplier machining the part, he wondered: Could my supplier keep the file and produce parts for other factories as well? How can I ensure that my file is only used to produce parts for me? As he explained his problem to me, I thought about possible solutions such as information rights management. They require specific expertise, expensive software, and intensive training. And I wondered, why do we still accept that files can be copied freely when they have become so valuable?
Last week, my sister wanted to make a bank transfer. She’s living in Europe, and banks there use the SEPA bank transfer network. She wanted to send money outside of Europe, and the receiving bank used another transfer network called SWIFT. She had trouble navigating her online banking menus and options and asked for my help. While she had the money on her account, we found out that her bank didn’t allow for online SWIFT transfers, but only the European SEPA. She had to call her bank’s call center, and it took a few calls before an agent capable of helping her was on the line. After she managed to make her transfer, she called me and was shaken by the realization that her money is not ‘hers’ as much as it is the property of her bank’s software and processes.
Just a few days ago, a colleague and I needed to sign documents sent by a customer. I was not at home or in the office, and neither was my colleague. The documents were urgent, and so we sent back an electronic signature of a PDF file. Our customer couldn’t accept electronic signatures, due to the nature of the documents and their internal policies. They had to wait a few days so that both my colleague and I had access to a printer, a messenger so that they could receive paper copies of what we submitted a few days before in a format that was arguably more secure. This time I wondered, why do some of us still have such distrust in computer files, and why should it be a problem that I have to deal with?