#CES2021: Microsoft President Calls for Collaboration to Counter Growing Cyber-Threats

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Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, warned of the increasing cyber-threats to society as technology plays a more powerful role in our lives during his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2021.

While he outlined the potentially enormous benefits advancements in technologies offer, including in areas like sustainability, the cyber-threats being faced are correspondingly becoming increasingly concerning. “As computers create all this promise, there are new perils arising as well,” he commented.

Smith discussed the time when cybersecurity first really came into consciousness at a governmental level. This was in 1983 when the then US President Ronald Regan watched the movie WarGames, which involved a hacker almost starting World War III after gaining access to a US military supercomputer. Amid concern that a similar scenario could happen in real life, first national security computer directive was created.

Such a proactive approach needs to be taken now, according to Smith: “It’s a powerful reminder that we constantly need to keep learning, we constantly need to keep imagining what comes next.”

The past year has underlined the huge dangers that critical infrastructure and services now face from cyber-attacks. In particular, the SolarWinds attacks towards the end of last year, allegedly conducted by Russian state-backed actors, is something of a game-changer in the view of Smith, and action is required. “This wasn’t a case of one nation simply trying to spy on or hack its way into a computer network of another. It was a mass, indiscriminate assault on the technology supply chain that all of us are responsible for protecting,” he explained.

Therefore, it is critical that a set of international rules and norms are put in place to show what is and isn’t acceptable in the cyber-sphere just as there is for conventional warfare. Smith believes the cybersecurity industry has a key role to play in the development of this. “We need to come together as an industry and use our collective ways to say to every government around the world that this kind of supply chain disruption is not something that any government or any company should be allowed to pursue,” he said.

Smith also said that the SolarWinds incident highlights that everyone needs to work together much more closely going forward to detect threats such as this early, especially in the area of data sharing. He noted that it was a “powerful reminder that threat intelligence and data, about cyber-attacks, really exists in so many silos today,” adding that it is “clear that the only way to protect the future is to understand the threats of the present and that requires us to share data in new ways.”

Smith went on to warn of the dangers of getting too carried away with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, and “surrendering control” of computers, something that was a big theme in WarGames. While AI has the potential to deliver great things, “we have to think about the new guardrails we need to create so that humanity remains in control of our technology.”

Examples include facial recognition technology and machine learning tools, which can offer much more convenience to people, but also threaten fundamental rights such as privacy and even lead to bias and discrimination.

Smith concluded on a positive note, stating that such challenges can be addressed through global collaboration. “If we come together and do work well, it can be a road that leads to a brighter future,” he added.

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