This last chapter is not devoted to technology but offers a look at some of the questions that the massive presence of information and communication technologies in all sectors of our lives seemingly poses to society.
What are the threats of cybercrime? Does the uncontrolled use of our multiple forms of personal information threaten our privacy? Is social life under influence? Is democracy in danger? Are we all participants in this digital world? Are AI applications risk-free? Will intelligent prostheses create a category of bionic humans? Can we envisage an increase in our life expectancy, or even our immortality? Finally, what kind of society do we want?
We have mentioned computer security (often referred to as cybersecurity) in several of the chapters of this book, particularly in Chapter 2 on networks. We would like to insist here on the questions it raises when several billion computers are connected worldwide, and soon, probably tens of billions of connected objects: theft of strategic information, spying, ransomware attacks, sabotage of essential operators (banks, health, energy) and destabilization relayed by social networks.
Computer security is a set of technologies, processes and practices designed to protect networks, computers and data against attacks, damage and unauthorized access that can be grouped under the term cybercrime.
Attacks can be mounted remotely. Local law is usually powerless in the face of assaults from afar; international cooperation is often complex and slow. Attacks are easily automated and large-scale. They can hit targets very quickly anywhere in the world, affecting virtually every sector of our activities (health, commerce, finance, defense, etc.).
Attackers remain anonymous quite easily. Sometimes, even the geographical origin of attacks is difficult to establish: does an attack really come from China, or is it a Russian attack that transits through bots (automatic or semi-automatic software agents that interact with computer servers) in China? Or maybe it is a mixture of both? The possible sanctions therefore have less deterrent power.
A significant proportion of computer attacks for spying purposes target players in the economic, scientific or industrial sector. The aim is to penetrate computer systems in order to steal patents or create data leaks. The attacker’s objective is to discreetly maintain access for as long as possible in order to capture strategic information in a timely manner. Recent examples have shown that organizations such as NASA in the United States are not immune to these cyber attacks.
Saturation attacks are another way to destabilize a company. It usually involves flooding a server with unnecessary requests to overwhelm it and make it inaccessible; this is known as a denial of service, which can be very serious for the organization that is the victim.
These are (fortunately quite rare) attacks, which target, for example, a country’s communication or electricity network in order to produce a blackout. The simplest way is to carry out a denial of service attack. But the attack can target a few computers with a major role in the infrastructure and introduce a virus that will render them inoperable.
Ransomware is malicious software that blocks computers and demands ransom, for example, Bitcoins, in exchange for a return to function. This type of campaign is aimed at both companies and individuals.
This category of attacks includes phishing, which is aimed at obtaining, from the recipient of an apparently legitimate e-mail, the transmission of bank details or login details for financial services, in order to steal money from them. Generally, the e-mail usurps the identity of a legal entity (company, public service, etc.) or a physical person (colleague, friend).
A computer virus is a self-replicating software program designed to cause more or less drastic damage to the proper functioning of a host computer or computer network. One method of introducing a virus is to invite the recipient to open a malicious attachment or follow a link to a malicious website.
Fake news, or infox, which is not just false news but deliberately falsified and misleading information, is invading the Internet. Disinformation campaigns, which can be initiated by states or leaders, are common.
The destabilization of democratic and economic processes is among the objectives of cyber attacks. The threats we have just mentioned are elements of cyberwarfare.
To restrict ourselves to the military domain, it is obvious that all weapons (planes, ships, ground vehicles, etc.) are equipped with often complex software and are involved in communication networks. It cannot be ruled out that a weapon system is rendered ineffective by the introduction of malware or viruses into software by an enemy country. The military and secret services of many countries are very active both in organizing cyber defense and cyber attacks. In the summer of 2019, the New York Times reported a US cyber attack against some Iranian computer systems to prevent Iran from attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf again.
The societal stakes of cybersecurity are so high that all developed countries have set up agencies in charge of this field. In France, the role of the Agence nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information (ANSSI) is to facilitate a coordinated consideration of cybersecurity issues. These agencies collaborate at an international level, as it is clear that cyber attacks do not respect borders. They focus their activities on the main threats facing governments, businesses and major public and private organizations.
The majority of companies and public bodies have a manager or even a specialist department responsible for IT security, and they lay down very precise rules adapted to their specific context. But the general public who use IT tools, including smartphones and connected objects, must also be vigilant against attacks from hackers. Let’s remind ourselves of some measures we should all take: be vigilant when surfing the Web, use long passwords and change them periodically, never click on a link or open a file from strangers, report suspicious e-mails to an ad hoc organization such as Signal Spam.
We exchange information with many people, known or unknown, we surf on many websites, exchange messages, use social networks and smartphones, etc. We have become large consumers as well as large producers of information, some of which concerns our private life, but which is likely to be aggregated and accessed by others (individuals, companies, etc.). The idea that only people who have something to hide need to worry about their privacy is a bad idea. How much of our lives should remain private?
The data we produce can be retrieved by many means and used without our knowledge by actors who don’t always mean well. Here are a few examples.
The data that we keep on our computer equipment (computer, smartphone or other) can be stolen by intrusion of a malicious third party. This is also true for what we send to the Cloud, those huge data centers whose security is often compromised. Beware of sensitive data!
Data, sometimes confidential, are stored on various sites. The notorious Panama Papers scandal is linked to the leak of more than 11.5 million confidential documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing information on more than 214,000 companies as well as the names of the shareholders of these companies. In 2018, Facebook announced that the data from 29 million users may have been stolen by attackers of unknown origin. Many recent examples have confirmed that our data are still vulnerable and we only know the tip of the iceberg.
Does e-mail ensure confidentiality? The nature of the Internet means that a message passes through several computers before it reaches its destination. At each station, the message leaves a trace and can be intercepted and read or even modified. Even if interception is prohibited by law, there is no guarantee that a curious person won’t take a look at your mail.
The operating systems of our computers spy on all human–machine interactions including keystrokes, data from the microphone and even data from the webcam. A cookie is a text file, therefore not a virus, generated by the server of the site you are visiting, which is deposited by your browser on your computer when you surf the Internet. These cookies are used by merchant sites, which is not too serious, but they often record the pages you look at and will store information about your behavior on the Internet. Who will use this information and for what purpose?
The smartphone is one of the main vectors for collecting personal information. It communicates information both on our centers of interest, via the applications that we have installed on our smartphones, and on our travels thanks to geolocation.
In August 2019, Google security researchers revealed the existence of 14 vulnerabilities affecting iPhone users, even with up-to-date security patches. Some applications that can be easily downloaded contain malware.
They are everywhere or almost everywhere (smart TVs, smart refrigerators, robot vacuum cleaners, connected stuffed animals and other voice assistants) and they are slowly invading our homes. But can we trust them? They are objects that are generally very vulnerable from a security point of view. It has been proven that it is possible to take control of the camera and microphone of a smart TV and spy on its owner without their knowledge. A specialist in the field showed how she had managed to exploit a security vulnerability in the famous Karotz multifunctional rabbit she had given to her daughter; this allowed her to take remote control of the device without her knowledge, using a computer, and to use her camera and microphone to spy on her.
Under security pretexts, webcams with biometric recognition invade city streets, train stations and airport halls, tourist spaces; they can even be found on billboards, in the eyes of mannequins in store windows and inside stores, so that anonymity becomes impossible in public space. What about our private life?
In October 2019, the newspaper Le Monde reported that the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés had sent a letter to the city of Saint-Etienne concerning its project to equip certain streets with microphones to alert the authorities in case of an anomaly. It noted in particular that the continuous and undifferentiated capture of sounds in the public space created the risk of capturing private conversations.
Our data may be of interest to many organizations; here are a few examples.
Commerce makes extensive use of our personal data, through the tracking of our web browsing, our trips to the stores thanks to our smartphones, or thanks to loyalty cards that provide a detail of our purchases.
Many companies share personal information (name, postal address, e-mail, photo, bank details, social network postings, IP address, etc.) of their employees or customers with third parties (suppliers or partners). Some companies use new technologies in an intrusive way: permanent video surveillance of workplaces and living areas or locating employees using the SIM card in their cell phones. Spying, whether by governments or companies (industrial espionage), mainly concerns people in very important positions. Some private confidential data can weaken the position of these people.
Banks and insurance companies are very interested in our private lives, especially data related to our health. Obtaining a bank loan, the premiums of our insurances and our mutual insurance company can be very dependent on these data.
Our personal information may be used for manipulation purposes. We recall the Cambridge Analytica affair, the name of the English company that, following the recovery of millions of pieces of data, drew up and classified psychological profiles of people and then sent them targeted and adapted messages during election campaigns – in particular, Donald Trump’s first. Some nations, such as Russia, are also often suspected of manipulation (fake news, etc.).
The future of our privacy depends in part on each of us, as well as on legislative measures to limit fraudulent uses. What steps can we take to protect our privacy and what are our rights?
The first step to take is vigilance. It is a matter of avoiding communicating sensitive personal information, in e-mails, on social networks, in Internet browsing, on our smartphones. Let’s not forget that we can be identified directly (by our first and last name) as well as from the crossing of a set of data (e.g. a person living at such and such an address, born on such and such a day and a member of such and such an association).
Legislation in this area is evolving. The French Data Protection Act of 1978 reinforces the control by citizens of the use that can be made of data concerning them. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)1, which is the reference text on personal data protection, came into force in 2018. All public bodies, companies and associations that collect personal data on European residents are concerned, including GAFA, Uber, Airbnb, etc. Any processing in breach of the GDPR can lead to sanctions and fines of up to 20 million euros or 4% of the annual turnover of the previous year. Article 17 of the GDPR grants EU citizens a right to the deletion of their personal data, better known to the general public as the “right to be forgotten”. This right to dereferencing applies only within the borders of the European Union.
In any case, it will be increasingly difficult to protect our privacy if we are not careful.
Remember: not so long ago, about 10 years ago, the Internet was synonymous with freedom of expression, democratization of knowledge and horizontal relationships. One of the major contributions of the Internet is in the field of freedom of communication. This freedom is twofold: it is the right to be informed but above all the right to express oneself. It therefore constitutes a place for debate and allows, through e-mail and the multiplication of forums, websites and then social networks, to confront points of view and exchange information.
What about today?
In the digital age, social networks allow us to communicate across multiple platforms and applications, in a multitude of fields, depending on our interests. The Internet makes it easy to find people who share the same interests. We do not count the apps, professional or cultural, for example, which are being created in recent years. Many associations of all types are created and developed through websites, membership lists, blogs, networks that allow them to make themselves known.
More simply, we can easily communicate with our family and friends, wherever they are in the world, thanks to the applications available on our computer or our smartphone: e-mail, video, chat, etc., and all this for free most of the time. This ease does not, however, enhance the quality of human relationships: an e-mail does not replace a face-to-face meeting, because the signs of non-written, non-verbal communication disappear. And I’m always surprised to see people sitting at the same table in a restaurant spending their mealtime consulting their smartphones!
The Internet promotes greater interaction between those who govern and those who are governed. Many local authorities inform the inhabitants thanks to an application or a dedicated website. The latter can express their ideas on equipment or developments to be carried out on the territory. They can dialogue directly with an elected official or a department, or report a deterioration in their street. It is thus a direct consultation allowed by Internet technologies. We can imagine that the Internet could be a tool to participate in the legislative process by forums open to the Parliament and the sending to the parliamentarians of proposals of amendments. We are witnessing the creation of so-called civic tech initiatives.
In some ways, the Internet promotes collective action, allowing isolated but like-minded individuals to get in touch and mobilize. The Gilet jaunes (Yellow Vests) were first organized via Facebook. The Internet allows an alternative flow of information to limit the effects of the power of money in regard to the monopolization of the means of information. On the other hand, the Internet leaves room for disinformation and conspiracy based on the idea that everything is hidden from the citizen by a minority for the purpose of domination. According to some surveys, half of the French say they no longer trust the traditional media and follow the news on the Internet, which is full of false information. Surprising!
The classic vertical hierarchy of knowledge is giving way to a horizontal organization, under the influence of the Web. I am impressed by the ability of young people to find answers to their questions or to find a book for their e-reader. This is also the case for the immigrants to whom I teach the French language: with their smartphones, they find dictionaries, language learning sites, etc. I often use the Web to find the definition of a term, a director’s filmography, etc.
Many sites list, at least partially, the knowledge available in a specific field. Wikipedia is an example of a database, which is furthermore informed by Internet users. But, because there is another side to the coin, this information is generally not filtered and validated, and must be used with some caution and intelligence, for example, in the health field.
The development of digital technology has many advantages, but it also has negative aspects that should not be underestimated.
Liberation of speech has not only positive aspects. The Internet can also be the medium for disseminating false or defamatory information about an individual, or actions or ideas that contradict the foundations of democracy. Sites propagating negationist or racist ideas are accessible. There are laws that make it possible to fight against harassment, racist remarks, death threats, etc., but the delegation of regulatory power to private firms pursuing their own economic interests raises the question of the future of freedom of expression. This is all the more so since the States leave these companies a relative autonomy in the exercise of their regulatory power.
The digital industry thrives on a simple principle: extract personal data and sell advertisers predictions about user behavior. But for profits to grow, the prognosis must change to certainty. To do this, it is no longer enough to simply predict, it is now a matter of changing human behavior on a large scale.
The Internet becomes a tool at the service of mass surveillance, and the big companies, which said they were pursuing a liberal and libertarian project of citizen emancipation, appear to be pursuing economic interests that contribute to this surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the NSA (National Security Agency) Prism surveillance program created a major political shock.
New technologies have enabled the creation of many highly skilled and often well-paid jobs, as well as new forms of work. The self-employed working for applications such as Uber (transport car with driver), or the delivery of ready meals (Deliveroo, etc.), generally have no employment contract, are paid on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, are pushed to work faster and faster (with the associated risks) and are totally subject to the conditions imposed by a company without having a “boss”. These new forms of precarious work are referred to as employment uberization.
Seen even more is the precariousness of “micro-workers” who take on low-skilled activities offered on online platforms, for a generally very low pay per task. Behind the automatons are millions of “click captives”, paid in some cases at less than one cent per click for tasks such as image identification, transcription and annotation, content moderation, data collection and processing, audio and video transcription, and so on. They are disposable, non-contract workers.
A certain disenchantment corresponds to what has become of an Internet taken in hand by large groups tending to become monopolistic. Today, the market is dominated by a few giants who enact their laws, who behave like super-states with totalitarian temptations. Now, it is these groups that guide the development of institutions and society. Even more, it is their technology itself that shapes our world. In 2018, Facebook’s turnover was over 55 billion dollars, while 117 countries in the same year had a GDP below that amount (source: World Bank). Its profit was close to 7 billion dollars because the company has no societal commitments (schools, a country’s infrastructure, police, etc.), pays practically no taxes and its shareholders always ask for more dividends.
Are we moving towards the disappearance of nation-states or, at the very least, towards states without powers, towards an overthrow of politics and nation-states by companies with unlimited greed? At the end of 2019, Facebook intended to create a supranational currency, the libra; will it succeed? Will tomorrow’s cyberdemocracy be subject to a few web giants or to a system driven by cameras and surveillance of personal data? Or is there a possible third path for a peaceful cyberdemocracy, where digital technology would be used for consensus-building rather than fragmentation, division and profit?
Being part of digital society is not limited to having equipment (computer, smartphone) or using social networks. The European Commission unveiled its 2019 ranking of the Digital Economy and Society Index for the 28 EU countries. France ranked 15th, far behind the best performing countries (Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands). The criteria were connectivity, human capital, use of Internet services, integration of digital technology and digital public services.
According to France Stratégie (a French research and forecasting, public policy assessment and proposal evaluation agency, reporting to the Prime Minister), nearly 14 million people are excluded or have difficulty with the use of digital technology2. Why these usage divides?
The first reason that comes to mind is the lack of access to the Internet; we talk about “white zones”. At the beginning of 2019, the consumer association Que Choisir estimated that 6.8 million people were “deprived of minimal quality Internet access”. These being rural and urban residents of less than 10,000 inhabitants. The situation is, however, tending to improve.
The second reason is age. Older people often don’t have a computer or even a smartphone, and when they do have such equipment, they have real difficulties using it because they find themselves in a foreign world. Completing a tax return online is impossible without help.
The third reason is a lack of knowledge of digital technologies. Young people (almost) all have smartphones. Although they are assiduous users of the Internet, young people are mainly limited to using a few social networks and loading music or videos. Looking for a job, writing a CV and a cover letter (word processing) to send to a potential employer require more knowledge. Training in school curricula is probably very insufficient.
We have just been talking about the digital divide in France. What about developing countries? While mobile Internet is progressing rapidly on the African continent, data shows that three quarters of the population remain offline.
Education is a key factor in bridging the digital divide for both young and old. It is not a question of ensuring that everyone becomes a computer scientist, but that everyone can use the tools that are almost indispensable in today’s society, while being aware of the limits and dangers of these tools.
A Digital School Plan (Plan numérique) was announced by the French government in 2015: “Digital technology is not just a tool, it’s not just pedagogy, it’s not just content. It’s also a culture, which means that every school pupil must be equipped with the means to understand what is read, what can be seen on digital tablets or computers, to understand the issues in terms of citizens-natured people, to also have a good analysis of what programming is, how a certain amount of content and resources are created…”.
An ambitious goal! There are, in our opinion, at least three levels. The first level is the use of tools (tablets, for example) in the study of other subjects (French, geography, etc.): mastering access to information, knowing how to sort and choose it, detecting pitfalls. The second level is to allow children to have some distance from these tools and their misuse (harassment, etc.). All this must be part of the common building block. The third level is more centered on basic notions of computer science such as algorithms that develop logical thinking, coding, etc. (not everyone becomes a mathematician but everyone must know some mathematical basics). This can be part of school activities, with teachers trained for this. The use of sites such as code.org can be helpful to the teachers and even directly to the children. What is the status of the implementation of this digital plan?
Computer technology scares many adults, especially the elderly. Their training is done, for the most part, by associations and we consider that they must be helped, for example, by local authorities, because many citizens need it to be included in today’s and tomorrow’s society. The National Plan for an Inclusive Digital Society, launched in 2018 by the French government, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
We have already pointed out the risks involved in certain uses of technologies based on algorithms associated with artificial intelligence. When mastered, AI is a tremendous opportunity. Altered, it could represent a great danger. Researchers, politicians and organizations such as the European Economic and Social Committee have highlighted some of these dangers.
In January 2019, the MIT Technology Review magazine published an article summarizing the six main risks of AI: autonomous cars (major technological flaws), political manipulation, killer algorithms (use of AI for military purposes, such as killer drones), facial recognition (electronic mass surveillance), fake news (threats to a healthy democratic debate) and algorithmic discrimination (algorithms trained from unequal data reproducing the stereotypes and discriminations of our societies).
AI is also an economic issue, and Europe is lagging behind the United States and Asia. In 2018, the European Commission announced a plan to inject 20 billion euros into AI projects by 2021 by Member States and the private sector. In 2019, it began work on the ethical aspect, with the presentation of its guidelines on the subject, based on the report submitted by a group of independent experts (researchers, philosophers, businesses, consumers, etc.). Seven main rules are put forward: AI systems must remain under human control and supervision, respect the main rules on personal data, rely on highly secure algorithms, be transparent, be traceable and ensure that they are accessible to the greatest number of people and not discriminatory. Wishful thinking or a prelude to legislation?
There is an absolute need for ethical reflection and legislation to control, if possible, the development of the use of AI.
The very rapid progress made in the biological sciences, in nanotechnology and in computer science, especially in artificial intelligence, leads some to imagine a “new human” who would not be limited in physical or intellectual capacities, promising the abolition of old age, disease and death. This is still science fiction, but the “immortal human” is becoming a contemporary myth.
The first prostheses date back to prehistoric times, when humans began to stand on their own two feet because once they stood, they were only looking for one thing: to remain standing. Of course, prosthetics have evolved over time, especially as a result of the great wars that left many people disabled. The term prosthesis refers to an internal or external device that replaces or reinforces either a limb or part of a limb or an organ of the body to replace the compromised function(s). Our glasses, for example, are prostheses. The technical problems are different if they are substitutes placed outside the body or if they are implanted artificial organs. These two categories have made enormous progress, due to the introduction of new materials, advances in electronics, computer technology and, above all, a better understanding of how the human body works.
In just a few years, mechanical prostheses have rapidly evolved, and their performance has become increasingly impressive. Artificial organs are gradually emerging as a possible alternative to transplants. We speak of bionic prostheses, bionics being the science that aims to improve technology (especially electronics and computer science) by taking advantage of the study of certain biological processes observed in living beings. The bionic arm reuses nerves that were no longer solicited after amputation, and sensors will then interpret the nerve impulse triggered by thought to trigger the movements of the motorized prosthesis. The on-board electronics allow the artificial knees to restore walking as well as possible by analyzing both the environment and the movement of the contralateral limb to lock onto it. Exoskeletons give paraplegics the ability to stand up or climb stairs. Using the signals emitted by the brain to regain the use of a limb is no longer science fiction.
Today’s hearing aids can suppress background noise, but they amplify all voices indiscriminately. In new devices under development, the system receives a single audio channel with crossover sounds and then distinguishes between the different voices in this hubbub using artificial intelligence algorithms to amplify the sound of the conversation that most interests the listener.
The artificial heart will soon be a well-controlled prosthesis, even if its cost is very high (more than 100,000 euros). It works like a motorized pump, thanks to software and a state-of-the-art electronic system (microprocessor and seven sensors in particular), capable of analyzing the pressures at the entrance and exit of the ventricle after each beat, and adapting the cardiac output.
There is still the brain: brain chips are capable of monitoring and controlling various functions of the human body, but brain transplantation is not really considered, as a functioning brain; that is, a living brain would be needed as a replacement. So does a prosthesis make sense?
Today, prostheses are intended to repair a damaged or destroyed limb. But some consider that prostheses could improve the performance of a limb, and that some humans could use prostheses to improve the physical or mental characteristics of a human for this purpose. We arrive at the notion of the bionic man, a new echelon of the human species which would be reserved, of course, for one or more privileged classes. It is the shift from repaired man to augmented man, programmed to become completely artificial, advocated by Ray Kurzweil, the champion of transhumanism.
If we can replace any defective part of the human body, if we can cure neurological diseases (if we cannot use a prosthesis), what becomes of the human being? Can we envisage an increase in our life expectancy or even our immortality?
Genetic engineering, which makes it possible to modify the genetic constitution of an organism, prostheses that can amplify our physical capacities, cognitive sciences, nanotechnologies, robotics and artificial intelligence: all the progress made (and that remains to be made) in these fields leads some to consider that the forms of humanity that we know are in the process of being outdated and that the posthuman; that is, what comes after the human, as well as the transhuman, is on the horizon.
This theory meets with many detractors, particularly among scientists3 who consider that it is a childish ideology, a fantasy, with a risk of eugenics (prior selection of the best individuals to access transhuman technologies), that the body is not a machine, that aging is inevitable even if it takes place in better health, not forgetting that while life expectancy is 83.7 years in Japan, it is less than 60 years in a large part of the world (source: WHO). This theory also has a strong economic dimension, and the digital giants are interested in it at the risk of deepening social inequalities, because the cost of the individual’s transformations is considerable (who could “buy” eternity or power?).
This debate on transhumanism has at least one merit: it pushes us to think about the future we want and the place we give to technology in our lives.
A few personal reflections to end this book: I suggest you read the books by economist Daniel Cohen (2018) and historian Yuvan Noah Harari (2019), which provide an incomparably richer vision.
Digital technologies have made extraordinary progress in recent years and are gradually invading the world. At the same time, our world is plagued by sometimes violent conflicts, the questioning of the democratic ideal, development gaps that are difficult to bear, antagonisms about climate change and its consequences, etc. Does IT provide solutions? My answer is “no”. I’ll give an example. Mathematical models and supercomputers are making increasingly accurate predictions about the evolution of the ozone layer, pollution and climate. These technological advances have little or no effect on the decisions taken by the leaders of our planet.
In this chapter, I have presented some questions that our digital society must ask itself. Technologies alone will not solve the challenges of our world, but they can contribute to them.
The human species is creative and always in search of new ideas and technologies. The technologies associated with the digital world are neither good nor bad; it is up to our societies to use them so that they are at our service, and not the other way around.
An important question arises: Will we be part of these choices, or will they be imposed on us?