Mozilla: IoT a growing security concern, social fraud hitting 'epidemic proportions'

Mozilla said the current 'online advertising economy is broken and easily bent to fraud and abuse.'

Why the internet and social media are broken
Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • The Internet Health report from Mozilla focuses on five main issues: Privacy and security, Openness, Digital inclusion, Web literacy and Decentralization.
  • Mozilla also honed in on the rise of IoT devices, the spread of fake news, and massive tech companies that control significant portions of the internet landscape.

Access to the internet has grown exponentially in the last 10 years and will continue to play an outsized role in our lives as more and more people and activities move to the digital realm. With more than 3.57 billion people now using the internet and efforts to digitize a panoply of processes well underway, Mozilla decided to release their inaugural Internet Health Report, a general survey of the issues surrounding the web.

The report focused primarily on five singular issues: Privacy and security, openness, digital inclusion, web literacy and decentralization. But one of the report's main concerns revolved around how advertising is managed on the internet and the way that our current system rewards sensationalism regardless of truthfulness or accuracy.

"....fraud in social media is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide, at least in part because the online advertising economy that underlies much of today's Internet is terribly broken. Local politics aside, the rise of misinformation discussed under today's catch-all banner of 'fake news' needs to be understood in the context of unhealthy market realities that can reward malicious behavior for profit or political gain," they wrote.

Mozilla's report cited a specific case of teenagers from a small town in Macedonia who played an outsized role in the 2016 US Presidential election, raking in thousands of dollars in ad revenue by writing and promoting intentionally false news stories and using US President Donald Trump's name in headlines to increase their popularity.

SEE: Internet and Email usage policy (Tech Pro Research)

"Macedonian teenagers were able to make the 'attention economy' work for them. Realistically speaking, these are the same dynamics that make Trump the biggest story in mainstream U.S. digital news media. People click, ads pay, more articles are written," the report said.

Part of the problem behind this issue is the consolidation of the market among 2-3 companies. Mozilla's report says Google and Facebook control an astounding 84% of global ad revenue outside of China.

Their continued dominance of the market has made them increasingly unlikely to change fundamental aspects of internet advertising models in dire need of regulation and monitoring in order to stop the growing trend of disinformation campaigns and abuse.

"The network control of major Internet services is only part of the grip they hold on our lives. Through sheer size and diverse holdings, a few companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon - or if you live in China, Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba - have become intertwined not only with our daily lives, but with all aspects of the global economy, civic discourse and democracy itself," the report said.

The report continued: "The problem isn't that these companies have billion dollar valuations, hundreds of millions of users or large acquisition portfolios. It's that they are too big. Through monopolistic business practices that are specific to the digital age, they undermine privacy, openness and competition on the Web."

The actions of these few companies bleed into the rest of the internet and have an indelible affect on a number of different issues related to how people use the web, the report noted. Privacy was a major concern of Mozilla, and they wrote that both hackers and governments continue to exploit lax regulations in order to monitor or rob internet users.

Specifically, the report pointed to the spread of Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a significant problem for security and privacy. With over 30 billion IoT devices expected to reach homes across the world by 2020, more effort needs to be put into securing them and regulating who has access to their information.

SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)

"People buy things, connect them to the Internet and never think about securing them as long as they work," they wrote. "Fitness trackers, kitchen appliances, light bulbs... This year, we will be listened to, watched, recognized and recorded by phones, digital assistants and cameras like never before. Data will be collected that is vulnerable to hacks and breaches."

Mozilla reminded readers that these devices have already been used in massive attacks on the web, with large sections of the internet shut down last year due to a bug designed specifically to take advantage of insecure IoT devices.

Mozilla made sure to include positive notes in the report, writing that the internet was becoming more accessible and cheaper for much of the developing world, and web encryption is becoming popular for more and more websites. But the lack of diversity at the major tech companies is slowing efforts to democratize the internet and make it a safe place for everyone.

"Persistently low diversity within most tech companies (and open source communities)...has inevitably led to software, algorithms and products that reflect the biases of their creators and fail to consider the needs of marginalized users," they wrote, adding that some corporations are making a concerted effort to hire more women and people of color and limit online harassment.

"Digital inclusion will present new challenges in coming years. Diverse groupings of technology makers, governments and civil society must dig deep for solutions to these complex problems," the report said. "A healthier Internet built on respect for humanity relies on them."

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Image: iStockphoto/chombosan