Transcending Borders Through Technology

As is clear from the front pages of newspapers recently, we are living in a world where open democratic values are under attack. Paris, Bamako, San Bernardino, Jakarta and Ouagadougou have all been targeted by terrorists.

The European Union is being challenged over nation-state loyalties: Geopolitical realities are driving many EU nations to open their doors to refugees while others are closing them in a time when the world is being held hostage to the senseless actions of entities that are neither nation nor state.

At the same time, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that is reshaping our society. The Internet of Things (or the fourth Industrial Revolution as it is sometimes known) is driving a whole new way for businesses to optimize operations.

The widespread use of software applications has already launched powerful new business models, where cost structures have completely been reshaped. Excess supply and demand are being taken up and satisfied. Operating-profit models are shifting. Labor models, also, eventually will be transformed.

But as essential and transformative as software has become, it also has introduced a digital threat vector for many of the same actors who seek to attack democracies in the physical world. We must resist responding to this threat by simply hardening borders, rescinding access and limiting the capabilities of technology. Rather, we must embrace a security posture that is empowering and foundational to the emergence of the type of society we strive for — an agile society.

Understanding the digital dynamic of the fourth Industrial Revolution

What makes this revolution unique is that the user is now in the driver’s seat — demanding an ever-improving, easy-to-use, always-on digital experience. Enterprises and, interestingly, even countries are reshaping their value propositions to gain mindshare and market share in a digital age.

Take Estonia, which is pioneering the idea of a country without borders with their recent launch of the world’s first “e-residency” program. With it, you get a government-issued digital identity and an Estonian address, and you can set up a “location-independent” company online and conduct banking. A small country that, through digital transformation, can now count the entire world as its potential market.

Realizing the potential of our new connected world will take new approaches to security.

Already we’ve seen industry pillars such as transportation (taxis, travel agents), finance (digital banking, bitcoin) and healthcare (remote access to care) being rewritten the world over by software applications.

It used to take decades for enterprises to expand their global reach, but in the digital age it takes mere weeks, if not days. The real power of the Estonian example is that it goes beyond individual industries to demonstrate that software can transform how we think about the very borders upon which we have relied to organize our world for centuries.

At the heart of the e-residency aspiration is digital security — to ensure a level of trust and enable a business model that, without security, wouldn’t be possible. Whether it’s securing against hackers the Internet of Things — some 20-30 billion units — or the industrial Internet and its connected power plants and factories, realizing the potential of our new connected world will take new approaches to security.

Security: Empowering the agile society

As the technological surface area of our world expands, now is the time to take a look at the cyber-borders we are already constructing and stress-test them beyond the nation-state for a changing world. If there’s one thing that vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, malware like Conficker and breaches like Sony Entertainment have taught us, it’s that hackers don’t recognize borders and security cannot be an afterthought.

As software increasingly flies our planes and drives our cars and runs our economy, digital security enables physical safety and data protection at a minimum, but it also provides the impetus for better lives and global growth.

As hackers begin to exploit vulnerabilities deeper in the technology stacks around us, we need to focus on security as a global challenge that demands a new paradigm. For the potential of the digital age to be fully realized, we need to ensure that the world’s borders feel open while protecting individuals and institutions from attack. That protection will increasingly be identity-based and in the background.

The implicit borders of the digital world are just starting to take shape.

One emerging example is how banks are protecting their customers from card fraud. Putting up multiple barriers makes using an app or service cumbersome. Instead, access is streamlined and friction-free using identity and access management, authentication and analytics technologies that automate security processes in the background.

As we move forward, we need to be increasingly mindful that we are actually building out a new kind of global infrastructure in real time. Starting with some simple truths may help. First, as an agile society, we need to start seeing the world as a system, not a collection of discrete digital entities, with all that this implies for how governments and standards organizations need to work together.

Second, we have to accept that the massively organic digital world cannot be accurately predicted and controlled; rather, it must be sensed and responded to. It is temporal and alive and moving fast. This requires technological innovation inherent in sensors, machine learning and analytics.

Third, we need to foster agility in the form of open innovation and a belief that, just as in software development, iteration is the only way to both keep up with the rate of change and avoid large-scale, catastrophic failures of systems we thought were “perfect.”

Behind the attacks taking place against open democratic values everywhere, the democratizing influence of the Internet and the fourth Industrial Revolution are marching ahead boldly unimpeded. While the explicit borders of nation-states are being challenged and, in some cases dismantled or diminished, the implicit borders of the digital world are just starting to take shape.  The opportunity to get this right is now, and it will take the world to make it happen.