Security Is a critical component of digital equity that can’t be overlooked

Aug. 27, 2021
Advancing digital equity requires us to think beyond just access to broadband and digital services

Digital equity is an essential part of creating a more sustainable world, but it cannot be realized until technology adoption and the use of broadband and Wi-Fi are available in every community. That point was driven home in 2020 as 463 million children globally lacked access to remote education during the pandemic. The pandemic also highlighted the lack of equitable access to healthcare, which rapidly shifted to telehealth, especially in rural areas, and other online services that only work for those with access to technology.

Digital equity is critical for providing quality education, access to public resources and information, and empowering the global workforce. But to improve digital equity, there needs to be a focus across four key areas: hardware; connectivity; quality, relevant content; and digital literacy. These are interrelated: without devices and internet access, millions of people cannot improve their technology skills or access the information they need.

Beyond supplying devices and a Wi-Fi connection to bring more of the world online, there also needs to be a concerted effort around cybersecurity for all users. It’s important to remember that simply providing access to technology is not enough to yield true digital equity. The past year has seen a slew of high-profile ransomware attacks, which can have long-term effects on protecting personal, financial, and business information. If there is no security infrastructure built into devices and software that are deployed around the globe, digital equity will remain unattainable for the general population.

The Costs of Poor Cybersecurity

When we enable people with access to digital technology, we also give cybercriminals more potential targets. In 2020, reported losses from cybercrime surpassed $4.1 billion. Just recently, we saw how vulnerable major parts of our infrastructure can be to ransomware when attacks on Colonial Pipeline and JBS disrupted gas supplies on the East Coast and shut down beef processing plants and the REvil ransomware gang impacting over 1,000 companies.

Keep in mind that neither Colonial Pipeline nor JBS was operating without cybersecurity measures in place. If national entities with robust security services can be shut down by ransomware, it’s that much more important to increase security as we bring additional vital services online. For example, think of the potential damage a cyberattack could cause to an online voting system, a telehealth network or a tax collection system. These areas are crucial components of sustainable development: they improve health, make communities more sustainable, and allow more people to participate meaningfully in society. That is the very definition of digital equity.

Increasing security is critical

The safety of the next billion people expected to gain access to the internet for the first time between now and 2025 must be a top priority. Training users to learn, work, and browse securely is equally important. This work needs to start at the community level, as teachers, students and professionals navigate digital services for the first time. HP recently set an ambitious goal to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030, and the company will invest in local initiatives to address challenges in underserved communities focused on education, healthcare and the creation of economic opportunities.

To ensure that new users’ experiences are positive and help them achieve their goals, teaching them about basic security measures like two-factor authentication and VPNs can go a long way. In addition to the human component, security is of course making sure that computers have up-to-date security patches, malware protection, and secure routers and encryption.

With these hardware and software measures in place, governments and other organizations can offer online services more responsibly. Estonia, for example, has allowed citizens to vote online since 2005 using secure, encrypted technologies that include a physical ID card and blockchain technology to ensure votes are authentic while maintaining anonymity. The country uses similar technology to record deeds, so you don’t have to go down to the DMV to update your title when you sell your car.

Estonia is a relatively small country, so its systems aren’t comparable everywhere, but it offers a glimpse of public service systems that could improve access for people when built securely.

Accounting for the human element

All the technological security measures in the world can become useless if the people using the technology aren’t aware of their role in fighting cybercrime. Cybercriminals prey upon users they can manipulate into giving out sensitive information. According to Verizon’s recent data report, 85% of breaches they tracked in the past year involved a human element. As we deliver access to digital services, we also must provide educational resources so that the people gaining access understand how to use these tools responsibly and safely.

If we fail to do so, cybercriminals will quickly discover and exploit these newly connected populations. Instead of reaping the benefits of digital services, these already vulnerable communities could instead fall further behind, losing both access and economic opportunity.

Advancing digital equity requires us to think beyond just access to broadband and digital services. We need to make sure the equipment and networks that provide that access are secure. We also must ensure that the people gaining access understand both the benefits of the technologies we bring within their grasp and the potential threats that come with them. With a stronger focus on secure technology, we can transform digital access into digital equity, to the benefit of all.

About the author:

Dr. Tommy Gardner is HP’s Chief Technology Officer for HP Federal, spanning the US Federal Agencies, Higher Education, K-12 Education, State and Local government customer segments, as well as Federal Systems Integrators. His current responsibilities include technology leadership, strategic technology plans, product and technology strategies, salesforce technical support, and customer and partner relationships.

Previously, Dr. Gardner has served as the Chief Technology Officer for Jacobs Engineering, Scitor, and ManTech. Earlier in his career, he was a senior technical executive at Raytheon. In the U.S. Navy, he served as the Deputy for Science and Technology for the Chief of Naval Research. He oversaw the Navy’s Deep Submergence Program as well as its Advanced Technology Program. He also commanded the nuclear submarine, USS San Juan (SSN 751).

Dr. Gardner holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, a master’s in public administration from Harvard University, an M.S. in Management of Technology from MIT and a Ph. D. in Energy Economics from George Washington University. He is a Professional Engineer, an ASME Fellow, and serves on the ASME Board of Governors. He serves as the Co-chair of the Advanced Computer Roundtable and in 2020 he was appointed to the U. S. Council on Competitiveness where he chaired a working group and contributed to the Council’s final report, Competing in the Next Economy, published in December 2020.