It’s hard not to look at the world of technology and feel as though someone hit the fast forward button about a decade ago.
Services that now command huge power and market valuations, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, were either non-existent or barely launched 10 years back.
It took 50 years for London’s population to grow from 2 million to 6.5 million, and the social upheaval was immense. In half the time, the internet’s population has grown from zero to 3 billion.
We’re now gazing (often using smartphones also unthought of in 2006) into a near future in which a vast amount of information can be stored at little cost, and copied and sent anywhere almost instantly. The internet of things – in which almost any object can be online – heralds another lurch down this track.
Chaotic as the growth has been, we can now discern some mega-trends that seem to hold steady.
From zero to 3 billion in 25 years: the internet’s population is growing fast
Shift from ownership to access
Firstly, as we move to economies based on data there is a shift from ownership to access (when was the last time, for example, that you glanced up from your Spotify playlist at your shelf of dusty CDs?).
In the old days of ownership, value came from scarcity. By contrast, an economy based on access thrives on oversupply (the shop is piled high with “free” goods, but you pay to get through the door – or at the very least, you hand over your login).
Fall of pyramid-style corporate hierarchies
Relatedly, the classic, pyramid-style corporate hierarchies have tumbled. Instead, we increasingly see companies owned by small elites, whose services are consumed by the masses on a casual basis (Uber, Instagram and Airbnb probably employ fewer people between them than Ford. By contrast, they have millions of users, but those users can switch allegiance at a swipe).
Rise of cybercrime
As above, so below: the world of cybercrime echoes these trends. Because data can be copied almost infinitely at almost near-zero cost, it’s now possible for cybercriminals to eke out value in multiple ways from a haul of stolen information (a list of email addresses, for example, can be used for spam email, for targeted phishing attacks, or cross-referenced with other stolen databases to reveal passwords).
Collaboration within this shadow criminal economy is surprisingly common; it is an intricate, agile environment in which knowledge, skills and commercial acumen happily shared. It is also a high-volume,
It is also a high-volume, low margin industry. Because cybercrime operates on a global level, with the work being spread among affiliate networks, the individual victims’ losses may seem small, but cumulatively they can result in large profits.
Presented with this scenario, law enforcement agencies face a challenge: offenders are often based in jurisdictions over which they have little, if any sway. Their task is often to disrupt and degrade the criminals’ networks to damage the profit margins, rather than to put crooks behind bars.
Increasingly the private sector must step up to the challenge of modern online crime. Hiring an ethical hacking firm to probe your company’s defences is a vital first step. But the easiest way into a company is via its employees, and money spent on staff security awareness and training can be as effective as attempts to seal your perimeter.
Wherever these trends may lead us, the pace of change shows no signs of slowing.
In the time I’ve taken to write this, for example, 3000 new websites have been created.