Tech Trends: Five reasons why 2021 will be as least as bad as 2020
Tech companies will grow stronger, computer systems will continue to leak private data, and elections are still at risk of manipulation
If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about 2021, it’s that it will likely be better than the previous year. As one of the worst years in history, 2020 will join other years of hardship such as 133 B.C., 136 A.D. 1346, 1933, 1945, 1968, and easily defeat 2001 and 2016 as the worst year in the 21st century.
With a real possibility of overcoming the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis in the first quarter (especially if the Israeli Ministry of Health will stop obstructing health clinics from dispensing vaccines and allow them to do so in peace), with Donald Trump out of the White House and President-elect Joe Biden coming in, and a chance of significant global resources being committed to combat climate change, one may hope that 2021 will not suck as bad. It might even be completely fine.
Even though most of our lives are expected to improve, in some ways 2021 will be at least as bad if not worse than 2020. The following are a few technological trends that aren’t expected to improve with age.
1. Tech giants will continue to grow stronger and act aggressively
Police officers enforce the curfew in Berlin on new Year's Eve. Photo: AFP
Over the last few weeks, several prominent lawsuits and investigations connected to U.S. tech giants emerged, addressing antitrust and user privacy. Regulators now have Google, Facebook, Amazon, and even Apple in their sights.
Despite all that, it will take years before those lawsuits bear fruit, and even if similar lawsuits in multiple countries accumulate to a degree that will force tech companies to change the way they conduct business and even harm their revenues; it will still be a stretched out and slow process. The Biden Administration is expected to make tech companies’ lives more complicated, but it will be more of a marathon than a sprint.
It seems that in the coming year, at least for the time being, there is nothing that presents a significant threat to tech giants. They will continue to collect information, to act aggressively and bully their users, to make it difficult for and tie the hands of their competitors, and to continue to be nasty in general. Despite all the difficulties of 2020, the big tech companies are emerging from it stronger than ever: the pandemic did them well, while the rest of the broader economy declined. Today, big tech companies are more powerful, richer, and more influential than they were last year, and in 2021 they are expected to surpass that and become even more dominant.
2. Computerized systems will continue to be hacked and leak information
The year 2020 started and ended with two monumental cases of leaked information and hacking attacks in Israel. The information breach of the Likud Party’s Elector app on one hand revealing voter information, and the breach of the computerized systems of the Israeli insurance company Shirbit on the other, turned 2020 into an unprecedented media circus. Aside from those, there were several other big data breaches, like that on the European health system that stalled the release of the Covid-19 vaccines, the breach of computerized systems at the FireEye cyber company that led to data theft, or the attack on SolarWinds, an IT group who had 18,000 of its clients’ information revealed, including those of the American Secret Service, NASA, Microsoft, and MacDonald’s. Most of the data theft happened because the systems were unprotected and not up-to-date with the latest software, a basic human failure. While those things are expected to change over the next year, many organizations are now realizing that they weren’t properly protected and need to bolster their security. The year 2021 will see more hacking attacks, with the successes of 2020 only increasing hackers’ appetites, who are now searching for more prominent and seductive targets.
3. Technology will continue to botch elections
In the past two years, Israel has had more than its fair share of elections. But the forthcoming fourth election will be different as it will take place in the midst of the pandemic, with voters casting ballots in March. It means no major rallies and no campaigning in the streets and public squares. The digital sector, which has been a significant factor in previous elections, will now become almost the sole player, and its ability to be manipulated to botch election results will only grow. If the last elections were all about the hacked Elector app, this time it will be Elector on steroids. As debatable as it was, for the Likud Party, the Elector app provided the goods for the Likud, and other parties took notice. The Likud is sure to return to using the Elector app, or a different voter-spurring app this time around, expand its use and make it a key part of the campaign. Other parties are expected to take similar steps. Apps like Elector, gather voter information to sway voters using persuasive tools during the course of their campaign, and to get people to the polls on voting day (or have opposition parties’ voters stay home). The short time that has passed since the previous elections puts the parties in an excellent starting position when it comes to access to personal information, and they will use it to increase data-gathering efforts and create more effective and focused campaigns for potential voters.
In the U.S. presidential elections, fake news was spread by official channels, and at the center of it was President Donald Trump, who played a key role in shaping public opinion about the election campaign. Trump’s claim that the results of the election were fraudulent gained significant attention from traditional media channels and social media, despite the fact that they are baseless and were rejected by the courts. The truth no longer matters, and the constant warnings that Twitter attaches to the president’s tweets are negligible. In Israel, many closely followed the results of the U.S. presidential election, and if it turns out that the new parliamentary makeup spells bad news for one party or another, it could try to import the voter fraud claims here as well. This just about ensures that with the help of Facebook and Twitter, the next Israeli election will be dirty, and full of incitement and hatred, perhaps even more than the previous ones.
4. Countries will continue to use technology to suppress citizens and harm human rights
The coronavirus pandemic gave many countries what they wanted: an excuse that would justify penetrating or broadening the use of invasive technologies to exact government control over its citizens. What could be more justifiable than protecting or saving lives? China, which isn’t exactly an outstanding example of human rights, became the most prominent country in that regard. It has already created a police state that is active in the Xinjiang region, as part of its efforts to suppress the Uygur population, and the pandemic provided the perfect excuse for the country to expand its efforts to do so. Facial recognition, big data, artificial intelligence, biometric tracking, and even a mobile app are all justified means to limit the spread of the virus, and China indeed was able to control it. However, the nature of such privacy invasions is that they take root, and don’t simply go away when they’re no longer needed. Even after the global vaccination campaign is over, one can bet that many of those methods will stay active in China, while similar activities by other countries will remain in use, but for less justifiable reasons than stopping the pandemic.
Israel, who hurried at the beginning of the pandemic to adopt such surveillance methods by the Israeli security agency, the Shin Bet to try to stop the spread of the virus, has nothing to brag about. The use of those means against innocent civilians, in such a widespread and expansive way, crossed the line and hints at what may be done in the future. Once this psychological barrier is removed, additional future attempts to use the Shin Bet’s tools for simpler purposes will be easier and more daring. It’s safe to say that we’ll see them again.
5. Slave workers will continue to manufacture our smartphones
Prior to 2020, we knew that the workers at the bottom of our technological food chain do not enjoy especially pleasant conditions. Long hours, an embarrassing salary, pathetic working and living conditions - these are all part of what we agree to, even if we are unaware, every time we purchase a cheap smartphone, tablet, or new computer. The year 2020 put the focus on the fact that most of the factory workers in China do not arrive at the factories by choice (since poor people in weak countries don’t really have a choice), but rather are sent there by the state. In March, it was revealed that the Chinese authorities had forced the Ugyur population to work in factories that supply products or parts to local and Western companies. Work is conducted under duress, people are constantly monitored, and the Uygurs are separated into segregated dorms and are transferred between factories by special trains. Their work conditions are similar to military orders, and they are forbidden from carrying out religious customs and must endure political indoctrination.
One of the most prominent companies that benefit from this service is Apple. Its factories were among those revealed in March, and only this week the Washington Post reported that the Lens Technology factories, which provide glass screens to iPhone products and other Apple devices, forcefully employed Uyghurs. One would think that Apple, which considers itself a liberal and progressive company, would be at the front of ending this practice, but the company has been lobbying against the U.S. law to limit forced labor.
Employing forced laborers, or calling it by its proper name - slaves - is a completely immoral and despicable act that every company which discovers such activity must immediately end it at any facility whatsoever, even at the price of significantly damaging and slowing down its production line. I, of course, am not naive enough to believe it will happen, but one can expect someone to take some type of action against this, if only by unequivocally supporting a law to end this practice. The steps taken by Apple show that this will never happen, and even if it does, we’re talking about a complicated problem that won’t be solved by passing a law or two.
This means that if you buy any electronic device in 2021, you need to realize that it was created, at least in part, by slaves.