When Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED Magazine, came on screen at the 31st Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference for today’s opening general session, he was smiling and uttered a warm thank-you to Bruce Dorris, president and CEO of the ACFE, for his introduction. The neck of an acoustic guitar peeked out at viewers from over one of Thompson’s shoulders, while a sprout of greenery winked from above the other. Shelves brimming with books stretched across the space behind him. I always feel so at home in a room full of books, don’t you?
Despite this cozy setup, Thompson had prepared a series of decidedly un-cozy questions designed to challenge the very way we think about, interact with and implement technology into our lives. Thompson encouraged attendees to really consider their roles as fraud examiners in upholding a high-trust society. “My fundamental belief,” Thompson said, “and the reason why I like being the editor of WIRED…is because I think the more conversations we have and the deeper level at which we have them, the better the choices we make.”
At their core, a fraud examiner is responsible for determining what is true and what is not true. As many of you know, it sounds simple, but it is far from simple. Only minutes before Thompson spoke, attendees heard the story of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist who was murdered for her relentless pursuit of the truth. As Daphne’s heartbreaking story illuminates, upholding the truth is often a hefty weight to bear. Throughout his presentation, Thompson touched on this question of truth several times, pointing out that as our lives become even further enmeshed with the internet, that question grows more salient by the day.
Here are the 11 biggest questions Thompson pondered (and encourages you to ponder) about fraud and the technological future.
How hard is it to disappear?
Back in 2009, WIRED conducted an internet experiment. After noticing a trend of people disappearing from their lives, they wanted to find out just how difficult it was to disappear in the digital age. Keep in mind this was eleven years ago, but even back then, it was difficult to disappear. WIRED offered readers the chance to win $5,000 if they could find Ratliff before a month’s end. A reader did find Ratliff, and Thompson ended his story by telling attendees that today it’s even harder to disappear. “The number of ways we touch the internet, the number of ways we touch information technology has gone up, created more ways for fraud and for people to hack into us, and also to be found,” he said.
Just as fraudsters have new tools at their fingertips, so do you. In fact, Thompson shared, it’s now possible to track somebody’s location just because of the strength of signal between a base station and an internet of things (IOT) device. If you walk between your Rumba and its base station, your Rumba logs that you were in the room. It logs how often you pass through that room. This is the type of information that is very useful for an investigation.
It’s also useful information for someone, or a company, that wants to track you.
With technology, there is no clear-cut good or bad position. It’s all in how we use it and in what exactly we’re willing to give up. Which brings us to Thompson’s next question.
How will we think about security and privacy?
“What’s interesting to me is the evolution of our thinking about this,” Thompson said with a hint of wry laughter. “Basically, I feel like from the beginning of the internet until roughly 2018, we just did not care.”
Thompson illustrated how companies asked for our information and how we willingly gave it to them. They expanded the borders of exception with very little resistance from consumers. It wasn’t until 2018, until what Thompson calls the “tech backlash,” that we started to see a dramatic shift in privacy concerns. That’s when the Cambridge Analytica story broke and people realized their data had been taken and used in ways they didn’t understand or comprehend. There were other facets of this backlash, but either way, the consequence was that people really started to care. However, we’re experiencing yet another about-face in consumer sentiment with the coronavirus.
Thompson shared a graphic with attendees that showed sentiments regarding privacy and health concerns. The statement was, “I am willing to give up more of my personal health and location tracking information to the government than I normally would in order to help track and contain the spread of the virus.” Several countries were listed along with the percentage of respondents who agreed with the statement.
Saudi Arabia: 73%
“Whenever the choice came between privacy and some other value, we chose that other value.”
Thompson stated that it’s an interesting trade-off, and he encouraged attendees to start thinking about what happens when the threat of the coronavirus isn’t quite so real. What happens a year from now, two years from now? Will our norms of privacy have changed so much that we’ll have given up something we didn’t want to give up? Again, there are no right or wrong answers, but there are conversations to have at your organizations and within your communities.
So, where else will we surveil in the future?
WIRED recently covered a story about a school in Ohio that is planning to put Bluetooth trackers on all students to ensure that they remain six feet away from one another, but Thompson cautions — do we really want that?
Some countries have been able to manage the coronavirus better, Thompson pointed out, largely in part to the acceptance of a surveillance state. Extreme technological surveillance has been deployed in countries like China and South Korea to stop the spread. If you cross the border into South Korea, you have to install a tracking system and there are people watching and analyzing your every move. But again, it comes back to the question of cost. Are we willing to give up privacy for the benefit of public health? What about a few years from now when there is not a global pandemic breathing down our neck? How will our reluctance or acceptance shift?
Thompson walked attendees through eight more thought-provoking questions, tying them each into the fraud examiner’s role and responsibility to uphold a high-trust society:
What businesses are going to boom?
How will I know if anything is real?
How should we think about redemption?
Can we keep our elections safe?
How do we stay safe when we all work from home?
What will happen to the nature of work?
What happens to the United States and China?
What is the known good vs. the unknown harm?
Your work and your responsibility going forward
Your work in the anti-fraud profession is tied closely to technology. Criminals will use it to their greatest advantage, so you must use it to your advantage as well. Thompson recognized that you interact and have an impact on which direction our technological future goes, and he encouraged attendees to reach out if they’ve encountered something that touches on any one of these big questions. “Everybody watching this, everybody listening to this… if you have a good story, you have something that might make for a nice narrative, you can see my contact information at the bottom of the slides.”
We’ll keep his email address private for now, but you can always find him on Twitter: @nxthompson.