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Spies in our midst

spies in our midst - Spies in our midst

Intelligence collection and intelligence analysis are key components of the intelligence-gathering discipline. But, gathering intelligence is not always clandestine, does not necessarily entail espionage, or employ subterfuge. At times, in fact, information is freely given or divulged with consent, either through human source, or research in open publication.

There is another form of intelligence gathering, the type that may be more subtle, and usually unknown or unnoticeable even to the source of information. But it is not necessarily illegal, nor does it constitute espionage. However, it employs technology in the process of collecting intelligence and analyzing it.

And this is what authors Kieron O’Hara and Nigel Shadbolt referred to as “The Spy in the Coffee Machine,” which was also the title of their 2008 book published by OneWorld, which discussed the emergence of “hyper-surveillance” as people increasingly used technology for work and leisure. While 12 years old, the book’s lessons remain timeless, I believe.

The book again came to mind as I read an article in this paper regarding fraud and economic crimes in Philippine businesses, and how they have remained high in the last two years given the limited use or deployment of artificial intelligence or AI-based fraud detection systems. The article quoted the 2020 Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines Economic Crime and Fraud Survey.

Electronic devices, particularly those that use signals, frequencies, air waves, and access the internet are what I refer to as the “spies in our midst,” or the “observers” among us that gather and analyze intelligence, and perhaps share such intelligence with others. These are devices that “watch” us and “learn” about us, and attempt to “understand” how to better “serve” us.

As authors O’Hara and Shadbolt noted, all electronic activity would actually “leave behind digital footprints that can be used to track our movements.” And the spies are “tiny computers” in all our electronic devices like computers and mobile phones that “[communicate] wirelessly via the Internet [and] can serve as miniature witnesses, forming powerful networks whose emergent behavior can be very complex, intelligent, and invasive.”

So, combine our present-day use of electronic devices, and the now sophisticated communication capabilities of these “witnesses” to our daily lives, and then the use of AI-based systems to analyze all the “intelligence” gathered through these “witnesses,” then the unscrupulous would have the opportunity to perpetrate electronic fraud and other crimes, whether against companies or individuals.

In this regard, it is a case of man vs machine. But, perhaps, with respect to fighting electronic crime, it can be better addressed by machine vs machine. The PwC report noted that incidents of cybercrime jumped to 19% in 2020 from 9% in the 2018. At the same time, of those surveyed for the report, 25% of respondents said “costs [were] preventing companies from upgrading technology to combat financial crime.”

The survey also noted that “only a small percentage of companies [are] currently using artificial intelligence to counter fraud, with 40% of companies planning on using voice recognition in the next 12 months and 39% planning on using natural language generation-based systems.”

This, to me, is an issue as machines are no longer just tools with humans behind them. Through AI technology, machines have actually learned to think for themselves, and obviously have far more computing power than humans, and thus have the potential ability to out-think us in every way possible. In this sense, machines can also be better crime fighters than us.

The use of technology in our daily lives is inevitable, and I believe it will continue on an upward trajectory in the years to come. But, given the fact that the pace of technological development will likely continue to outpace the development of laws, policies, and regulations on the use and limits of such technologies, then an AI-based intervention may be a more suitable approach to combatting particularly electronic fraud and crime.

As I have noted in a previous column, the “ability” of an inanimate object, like a coffee machine or a mobile device used to be limited to “following [our] commands.” But these inanimate things, through technology and artificial intelligence, have now become capable to understand, learn, and even memorize or recall our peculiarities, desires, wants, preferences, attitudes, and behavior.

All information, including financial information, that relate to us personally are now stored in some chip within that device, and can be “accessed” from our devices by someone else to either establish a pattern of behavior or steal electronic identity. This simplifies the practice in the old days of intelligence operatives going through a subject’s garbage over a period of time to gather “raw” intelligence, and the same data will have to go through intelligence “analysts” just to establish the subject’s patterns of behavior.

“Big Brother” is no longer the government watching us, but it is that network of computers and mobile phones and other electronic devices that develop, capture, and analyze digital footprints and allow those with legal and illegal access to our information to better understand us and to make “informed” decisions about how to either serve us, or steal from us.

As I had noted previously, George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, more than 70 years ago. But his concerns about a totalitarian leader who watched and controlled people constantly are now a reality. In this case, however, that “totalitarian leader” is not an individual, or a government, or a company. It is the very network of electronic devices and the internet that we rely on every day that watch and actually control our lives.

And at the end of the day, we may be practically powerless against this phenomenon. But this is not to say that we cannot fight fire with fire. Machine vs machine, AI vs AI. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Protecting electronic information, keeping electronic transactions safe, and fighting electronic fraud and other electronic crimes will require the more efficient and effective use of electronics by people who understand that technology should benefit people.

 

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.

matort@yahoo.com

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