Woman working with several computer screens

Creating opportunity in the pandemic recovery through digital infrastructure

By: Harry Sharma

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times on October 21, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about major change for a vast majority of knowledge workers. COVID has accelerated the underlying technological transformations shaping how Canadians work, and emphasized the inequalities across regions in our ability to access digital infrastructure. Increased reliance on digital connections has also increased the risk to cyber attacks. Successfully addressing this nexus of change, equality, and risk has the potential to create new opportunities for Canadian organizations.

We surveyed over 650 industry and information technology (IT) leaders about the changes they have already implemented and new digital transformations planned in the short-to-medium term. A majority of leaders surveyed confirmed what we have all assumed: the pandemic has pushed them to adopt new technologies faster than their original plans. And the top three technologies adopted since March 2020 are video conferencing, digital signatures, and cloud applications in general.

These technologies have one common element: the need for an accessible and reliable digital infrastructure. It’s akin to having highways and bridges for the transportation ecosystem to exist and function properly. Unfortunately, there are still many communities in Canada without adequate access to broadband connections, limiting their ability to fully participate in the economy.

We are encouraged to see the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s recent announcement of dedicated investments in rural broadband. However, as we have previously noted, Canada needs to make access to digital infrastructure a national priority and explore novel ways to finance digital infrastructure development and ongoing upgrades.

Given that the workforce is increasingly connected remotely through technology, we must also consider cybersecurity issues. Our survey revealed that 30% of respondents had observed an increased level of cyberattacks. The top three attacks include phishing, remote access attempts, and data leaks using company accounts. But yet, a majority of respondents confirmed that they had not increased their risk tolerance to cyberattacks.

We find that small and medium-sized businesses are most at risk when it comes to cybersecurity. While it is true that they don’t have as much data to lose as their larger counterparts, it is important to remember that their intellectual property and customer data are existential matters for SMEs. From recent public reporting by Canada’s federal security agencies, we know that economic espionage and disruption are leading motives from adversarial state and non-state actors. It includes theft of intellectual property, industrial designs, and proprietary customer data.

To successfully address cybersecurity issues, we recommend a national program to a) help Canadian SMEs adopt tools to protect their IT systems, b) offer cybersecurity education for staff and management and c) develop a national cyber rating system for Canadian businesses. We can implement the first two recommendations based on previous technology adoption program models and existing programming at community colleges and universities.

The third recommendation ensures that Canadian businesses are better informed about the cybersecurity-related issues when partnering with external stakeholders. With complex supply chains and global partnerships, Canadian companies need a trusted source for cybersecurity assessments, and a national cybersecurity rating system will do just that.

The development of an effective cybersecurity rating system will require a national approach and collaboration among businesses, provinces, territories, and the federal government. Above all, for a national cybersecurity rating system to have broad adoption, it must maintain and demonstrate the highest level of independence, objectivity, and built-in privacy protections.

Canada will also need to find a way to work with international partners so that their companies can obtain a Canadian cybersecurity rating if they wish to conduct business with a Canadian entity.

The post-pandemic knowledge work realities represent an opportunity for Canada to play a global leadership role in enabling technology adoption for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, to lead and gain a competitive advantage as a global exporter of advanced remote-work collaboration tools, we must first invest and build a robust, equitable, and secure national digital infrastructure at home.