Cyber Liability and the Future of US Tech Policy

Every once in a while, a new technology threatens to fundamentally change life in the US as we know it. But we’re living in unprecedented times, and we may be on the verge of two such revolutions at once: the world’s tech giants are in the process of building an industry around wearable technology and, meanwhile, Google (and plenty of others) are working to fill our streets with autonomous cars.

Both of these technologies are case studies in how technology can influence both politics and policy. We saw this kind of sea change once before when smartphones became an invaluable part of US life, and we’re going to see it yet again as we try to make our peace with drone technology.

New Frontiers

All of the burgeoning industries I named above – drones, wearable tech, driverless cars – are all part of what’s become known as the Internet of Things. It is nothing more or less than ubiquitous computing, where our digital lives follow us from device to device, and shadow useverywhere we go.

If it sounds like some kind of dystopian daydream, you’re at least half right: the Internet of Things has a host of implications – some good, and some decidedly questionable. When you trim away all of the lofty promises surrounding improved convenience, productivity and happiness, what you have left is a big pile of unanswered questions concerning vulnerability – or, if you prefer, “cyber-liability.”

I’ll give you an example. If a driverless car is involved in a collision, who is at fault? The driver? The car manufacturer? The software company? When “traditional” automobiles have accidents on the road, the cases are usually clear-cut, as it was when Goodyear was held accountable for shoddy tires back in 2012. But when new technologies enter the equation, we’re faced with much more difficult questions – ones that nobody really has an answer to right now.

Here’s another example: remember when Sony Pictures was the victim of a nearly unprecedented hack? The one that exposed a treasure trove of internal information and brought us toe-to-toe with North Korea? It’s clear that these kind of breaches aren’t just bad for publicity – they’re bad for us as a country, and they put all of us at risk in ways we’re having difficulty predicting.

The Price – and the Solution

The costs of this kind of data breach are manifold. Target’s recent data breach cost the company about $160 million. All told, cyberattacks cost a victimized business an average of about $9,000. That might sound low compared to Target’s price tag, but it drives home the fact that even small businesses – the ones who likely consider themselves under the radar – are at risk as well.

But I’m not here to be a fear-monger; we have enough of that in this country. The good news is that the untamed digital wilderness is working its way toward comprehensive solutions. We’re not there yet, but it’s clear this is a significant concern – and a priority – for our leaders in Washington.

Back in February, President Obama issued an executive order, described by the Washington Post as “advisory in nature,” encouraging US-based companies to share – with the federal government and with each other – any and all data concerning cybersecurity threats. The President rightfully argues that cybersecurity ranks among the most pressing national security and economic concerns facing us today.

And just a couple months later, President Obama issued a second executive order – one that speaks to the challenges unique to this particular day and age. The order allows the federal government to impose penalties on foreign entities and individuals who carry out cyberattacks with the intention of doing the United States harm.

Some will decry these orders as the heavy hand of big government. Others will likely claim that they don’t go far enough. But they both try tothread an impossible needle, acknowledging that the great paradox of technology is how much it empowers us, as well as how much it putsus in harm’s way. MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga was quick to praise Obama’s action, saying: “Rather than fight this in individualized groups, there’s some merit in joining hands and doing it together.”

And isn’t that the story of the United States, when you get right down to it? We’ve proven time and again that we’re capable of anything if we come together in common cause, and the complicated march of technology should be no different.