In late 2015, in the very first chapter of my recent book, I discuss how China and its consortia of public and private sector assets have established dominant leadership in understanding and building digital trust. But that analysis now almost seems quaint, if not archaic.
Globally, governments and industry are moving toward achieving digital trust with one notable exception–the United States is so unfocused on trust, particularly across government services and online commerce, that the nation, its citizens, and its businesses, cannot even be considered to be in the game or on the field.
China’s Recent Initiatives
In China, since 2015, we are seeing markers that may not be completely comforting to some. For example, transparency is a vital condition required to enable trust calculations. The Chinese government announced they were placing physical security personnel physically on site at major network operating facilities, including the operating centers of commercial businesses. Yes, that creates transparency but it also betrays the lack of confidence of the government in such transparency being offered by the facilities themselves.
Perhaps even more illustrative of how trust can be calculated have been the announcements of China’s rollout of a comprehensive score for individuals that expresses the level of trust that can be placed in each person–for commerce, for credit, and for loyalty to the government’s policies. That concept, which will be linked into portable tokens such as national ID cards, certainly is a calculation but not necessarily in the manner those of us who live in more liberal economies would value.
Social media, purchasing behavior, education, friendships, recreational behavior–all will influence the scores assigned. There is little doubt that the ecosystems in which citizens live their lives will be responsive, to say nothing of the adaptations individuals will embrace to improve their scores. Friendships will be added or dropped, video game playing time will shift, purchasing behaviors will morph, bill payments will be prompt, and children will do their homework!
To make this particular system work, of course, massive infrastructure is being built–new networks, systems, applications, and data structures. New standards, particularly for data and data storage, are required to enable the mash-ups and analysis from which a score will result. All of these investments are valued in China to improve the social trust and economic efficiency of the current political and economic systems.
Personally, I welcome the Chinese initiatives, not because I concur with either their objectives or their methods-I certainly do not. But the initiatives highlight the important ethical questions that advances toward digital trust confront. How much transparency is required for trust? What are the proper roles for government in advancing trust in the Digital Age? What uses of digital information go beyond our human values for balancing privacy, efficiency, trust, transparency, and the unsavory consequences of having trust be more and more calculated?
The European Construct
I was actually prompted to write this blog while clearing my email box and discovering an invitation to a workshop held in Brussels in December (transparent evidence of how infrequently I attend to my email!). What was the workshop? Who sponsored it? Where was the funding? What were the objectives? Answering those questions gives just a small glimpse of the sophistication, momentum, and energy within the EU advancing toward digital trust.
The sponsor was SLA-Ready, an organization “funded by the European Commission’s Unit on Software and Services, Cloud Computing within DG Connect under Horizon 2020.” Just that simple tag line at the bottom of the email is provocative. Horizon 2020 is funded by nearly €80 billion over 7 years to develop and advance research and innovation. DG Connect is more formally known as the EU Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology; its goal is to develop a ‘Digital Single Market’ in order to generate smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth in Europe.
DG Connect is structured with 10 different directorates operating 40 different initiatives, including Directorate H, “Digital Society, Trust, & Cybersecurity”. Its mission is to provide a strategic approach to the societal dimensions of achieving a digital single market and provide leadership in, among other items, digital trust policy!
None of that tells us what SLA-Ready does. Its goal is to ‘create a culture of transparency and trust for cloud contracts’ by making cloud service level agreements (SLAs) ‘readily usable in the EU private sector’. The workshop included a) an introduction to SLA-AID, an online tool designed to help those acquiring cloud services to identify priority areas to consider when comparing the terms of different SLAs and b) SLA use cases that have been developed through an in-depth assessment of cloud contracts.
Taken as a whole, the EU investment in strategy, policy, and enabling digital trust is robust, well-designed, and staffed with resources pursuing diverse, complicated advances. Yes, some of the goals will be hard to achieve, but they are doing a great deal. Estonia is an exceptional example of one country, small in footprint but large in impact, heavily leveraging electronic information and information systems to achieve stability and competitive advantage across their government (Just type “Estonia e-government” into your search engine of choice!). It will be fascinating to see the possible implications when Estonia assumes the EU presidency later this year.
US on the Sideline
By comparison, in the United States, there simply is no comparison to either the momentum of China or the EU. Well, there are a few comparisons, and none of them suggest that the United States, whether its government or across the private sector, have the slightest coherent notion of the potential value of digital trust as a construct, much less of its importance as a competitive necessity. By example, recent public decisions to potentially target traveler cell phones and social media accounts as a condition of entry at the border, as well as reports of the degree to which electronic communications are monitored to advance counter-terrorism, more closely resemble the Chinese authoritarian view of transparency. Indeed, one recent survey reports only 19% of American citizens even trust their national government.
There is no cabinet level organizational resource. None. There are no government investments in enabling companies to overcome their fears of digital technology in order to maximize everyone’s efficiency in business transactions. None. There are no visible commitments to enable US-based companies to leverage and use cloud services with confidence and trust in their security and integrity. None. There is no national commitment to train the human resources needed to pursue these outcomes; to the contrary, it appears Federal policies are working to suppress the efforts by industry to recruit and employ the required talent from other countries. Instead of building confidence in digital information, some elected officials actively work to challenge and undermine the confidence that may exist.
Indeed, for each of the 40+ units within DG Connect, there is no meaningful counterpoint with a clear and conspicuous national imprimatur to succeed. Perhaps NIST, in its work to develop standards and best practices for the cloud, comes the closest, but it operates without the type of national funding and policy values seen elsewhere.
Advances toward digital trust, whether enabling commerce or government autocracy, require enormous resources to create the inter-dependencies and inter-operabilities that enable digital information to be functional and useful. The conspicuous absence of those resources is simply leaving the United States on the sideline. The disruption of digital trust may likely gain such momentum that no amount of “catch-up” investments will enable the combined assets of government and industry to catch up in the global, wired marketplace that now exists.
In closing, my objective is not to advance a political view, but to make an observation that digital trust is now becoming a substantive and funded driver of how large portions of the global population are responding to the potential of the Net (including adverse outcomes that are feared by some). Those companies that do not demand their governments to engage will be left behind. Those governments that do not prioritize investments in digital trust will fail to serve their citizens. The level of collaboration, joint investment, and initiative that can be achieved in public-private sector synergies will prove to be a major variable in deciding who wins the race to achieve digital trust.