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As our digital future becomes our digital present, here’s why we must get serious about cyber security

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The recent Federal Budget contained a host of measures to reinvigorate the economy and lay the foundations for Australia’s digital future. In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, a lesser-heralded policy which could have the greatest long-term benefits during today’s rapid and irreversible digital transformation is commitment to cyber security.

Digital transformation is by no means a new phenomenon and has been trumpeted for many years as the future for businesses; allowing them to streamline, scale-up, lower operating costs, and spend more time focused on serving the evolving needs of their customers.

Stimulated by the pandemic, though, a decade’s worth of digital transformation occurred almost overnight in Australia. Unfortunately, with such a rapid and sizeable paradigm shift, business cyber security and the ability to safeguard it falls behind. Digital transformation isn’t a temporary trend but a permanent shift and if businesses can’t trust their online security, they can’t truly embrace a digital future.

Online privacy goes hand in hand with digital security

While security might evoke technological approaches as safeguards, privacy tends to be driven by individual practices and policies of businesses. Since March, an already-growing reliance on technology has surged.

From ordering groceries or safely visiting a restaurant, to running a business or attending a class, our digital footprint and the number of places our personal information exists online will have increased significantly. While this reliance on technology has, and continues to act as a beacon in uncertain times, it also poses a sinister and serious threat that we must urgently tackle.

Many business revenue models rely on the collection of personal information – now more valuable than oil, by some estimates. Some of the largest technology companies in the world have for years built their lucrative business models around the collection and sale of your personal data to the highest bidders.

Governments are belatedly clamping down on both privacy and anti-competitiveness that this dominance of data ownership can bring — witness the US Senate hearings this week of tech CEO testimonials — but that horse may have already fled the barn.

Personal data has become highly sought after by unscrupulous, increasingly sophisticated agents who seek to use it against us. This vulnerability has only heightened during the ongoing pandemic which has catalysed a situation rife for privacy abuse and security failures. The Government’s fiscal stimulus package focuses both on combating these threats and improving Australia’s cyber security skills, so we’re in a better position to nullify the risk at source.

Unprecedented amounts of personal information are being shared and stored online as governments use data to track the spread of the virus. While the pandemic intensified again recently in Melbourne, Australia has been comparatively successful in containing the spread of the virus. However, maintaining that success will depend on data-collecting track and trace technologies being relied on for many public and social engagements – potentially indefinitely.

Restaurants, bars, hair, and beauty businesses, and even some retailers, are required to make their customers upload their data through a QR code before they’re permitted to enter. That means that long-term, society will be reliant on systems that pose very real and very serious threats for it to function. What’s more, with millions of Australians still working remotely and likely to remain so for some time, data literacy in the workplace is brought into sharper focus too.

The 2020 Unisys Security Index found that only a quarter (26%) of Australian’s have concerns about cyber security while working from home. That doesn’t mean the threats aren’t there, just that the awareness of them isn’t. Coupling that apparent innocence with the fact that their level of concern has decreased since 2019 even with the increasingly sophisticated nature of hackers today, the potential for cyber crime is only exacerbated.

How damaging is cyber crime?

The damage, both reputationally and financially, can be severe and in some cases existential for businesses; especially today when many are focused on recovery and survival. Nobody is immune. From your personal computer to global conglomerates, small businesses to educational institutions, everyone is a potential target.

But with Australia’s long-term economic recovery dependent on the contributions of every business – big and small, new, and established – we need to implement the safeguards that will underpin growth.

But how? Businesses must understand their obligations and be diligent in safeguarding data and educating their teams about best practices. Today, there’s no excuse for cutting corners.

For example, businesses should be cautious of free software. You’re not paying with dollars but with data from your employees and customers. As the idiom goes: When the product’s free, you are the product! Remember that the most egregious offenders are the largest tech companies in the world with their ubiquitous free products that small business and consumers should be very wary about.

Employees should ask employers about the security of their workplace software, what data is gathered, how and where it is stored, and what processes are in place in the event of a breach. The simple act of asking improves data literacy, makes employees aware of the issue and how to make smarter, safer and better-informed decisions.

Business should understand the technology and software they deploy and the under what implicit terms. They should seek out vendors and suppliers who don’t just feel mandated by the law to meet privacy and security regulations, but transcend them through their policies and ways of conducting business.

Raising awareness of a threat that is more sci-fi than real life for so many Australians requires discipline, dedication, and discourse. The Government’s pledge of extra funding for its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy in the Budget must be celebrated, but it must also be the start of a concerted commitment. Cyber security isn’t a one-time fix, after all, and progress isn’t possible until everyone understands the risks and what they can do to minimise them.

When a global pandemic sweeps the world, it’s easy to focus on physical threats rather than digital ones. However, cyber education is essential. From the top tables of tech and policy to the everyday smartphone user, we must encourage honest and open conversations about data privacy and cyber security.

We must hold vendors and dispensers of technology to higher standards. Then, and only then, can we fully embrace digital transformation as the springboard it can and should be in Australia’s long-term social and economic recovery.

Vijay Sundaram is the Chief Strategy Officer of global technology platform, Zoho. With 45+ apps, Zoho is the cloud-based operating system for businesses of any size, in any industry.

Vijay Sundaram, Chief Strategy Officer at Zoho
Vijay Sundaram, Chief Strategy Officer Zoho
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