Published: Written By: Amrita Datar

It has never been easier to find someone. Earlier this year, in a somewhat “aww-inspiring” case of social media romance, a young Irishman used a twitter hashtag (#findkatie) to look for the girl he met on a plane before the two were separated at the airport. And find her he did—an ocean away in Canada.

Every day we read of heartwarming accounts of children reuniting with their birth parents decades later and distraught families finding missing loved ones, all using social media. It has never been easier to find someone—unfortunately even for an extremist group recruiting terrorists. Case in point: ISIS.

ISIS has been adept in using media forms like videos, audio reports, multilingual tweets and infographics to propagate its nefarious message and target young people across the world. Its growing presence on Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud, Instagram and other social media platforms is cause for concern for many.  Blocking these accounts is like trying to kill a modern-day Hydra—when one is shut down, several new ones appear within minutes.

Large group of people holding open cell phones up in air

Governments around the world have been grappling with the issue of technology being exploited by criminals and terrorists. There is growing concern that as service delivery shifts to online and digital means, it could leave governments and the citizens they serve more susceptible to technology-driven threats.

By 2020, an individual’s virtual identity could be as powerful as her physical presence, if not more so. Everything from bank accounts, financial transactions, employment credentials, social security benefits, health care data, education profiles, social interactions and more is online—and vulnerable.

So what’s the future of identity protection? Researchers at the University of Cambridge developed Pico—a tiny electronic device that remembers login credentials for you. It only works in the vicinity of smaller companion objects called Picosiblings that can be worn on the body or clothing, reducing the risk of stolen passwords, hacking and security breaches.

Others believe the human body could help. Toronto startup Bionym has developed a bracelet called Nymi that uses an individual’s unique cardiac rhythm as identification. This biometric footprint is then used by apps and connected devices to authenticate users.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that cyber-crime and economic espionage cost the world economy more than $445 billion—that’s almost 1 percent of global income.  Given how rapidly cyber-crime is proliferating, more resources and innovation will be necessary to prevent it and reduce the associated economic losses in the future.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security is working on a self-repairing networkthat would automate cyber defenses in the event of an attack, enabling agencies to recover quickly and avoid shutting down operations.

But as more and more devices join the “Internet of Things” and can be controlled remotely, the opportunities for hackers to infiltrate multiply.  Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group estimates that by 2020, the world could have more than 50 billion connected devices. Imagine terrorists kidnapping a nuclear scientist by hacking his self-driving car, or tinkering with heating systems and home boilers to set a fire, or manipulating medical devices like pacemakers or insulin pumps to have fatal consequences. The possibilities are many and frightening.

So what’s the solution? Despite the seemingly long list of threats that an increasingly digital lifestyle brings, what happens in 2020 will largely depend on how effectively governments, business and citizens adapt and respond to these threats. Technology-based, lightweight solutions and international collaboration hold part of the answer.  A few possibilities include:

  • Public-private collaborations emerge in the form of Innovation Hubs that employ white-hat hackers and emphasize rapid testing and learning
  • Governments create a new cadre of global enforcement officers with the ability to navigate international jurisdictions and seamlessly join foreign teams and bring global cybercriminals to justice
  • Police team up with academia to build arsenals of algorithms designed to connect pieces of data with individuals and unmask hackers

Ultimately, emerging technology is a double-edged sword—the very connectedness that brings the world closer and helps solve some of its biggest problems can also create new ones. So whether we see a mobile device or tablet as a wonder that quiets down a crying toddler when all else fails, or as a learning aid for young children, or as an evil distraction that makes kids socially disconnected, the fact is that technology is an integral part of our lives. It is up to us to make it work for rather than against us in the future.

Amrita Datar is a Senior Analyst with Deloitte Services LP where she works on research publications focused on emerging issues in technology, business, and society and their impact on the Public Sector. You can connect with her at @Amrita07 or via email at adatar@deloitte.com.