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A crazy year in tech: 2020 Tech Review


As the year draws to an end, Bill Mew looks at the chaos that was 2020 and asks: “Did we change course, change speed, or both?”

29th Dec 2020
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2020 has been a year like no other. None of us could have predicted the level of disruption on all fronts. Health services stretched to their limit; business interruption like we have never seen before in peacetime; hospitality, travel and tourism all at a standstill; supply chains disrupted; a trade war between the US and China; political farce in the US with Trump and in the UK with Brexit; and so many lives lost.

And while technology plays a significant role in our modern world, it has been particularly central to almost all of these issues.

Health tech: Covid vaccine shifts AI direction 

At the beginning of the year, health tech was seen as a real growth area. Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) using real-time data from connected devices were going to enable personalised healthcare. Instead, AI played a more pivotal role this year, but its greatest application was in analysing the virus and accelerating the development of a vaccine.

The UK government’s initial response to the virus included a home-grown NHS contact tracing app that centralised data collection. It failed to work, in contrast to the decentralised approach adopted by Google an Apple. After the government’s eventual U-turn, the need to ensure privacy protections became a fundamental ingredient to maintain public trust.

There is no doubt that AI will continue to play a pivotal role in health tech, but as with the battle against Covid, this will need to be done in a way that ensures data privacy.

Collaboration apps take off

Digital transformation and the migration to cloud-based apps has been happening for some time now. But this year we saw a massive acceleration with the sudden shift to working from home, the adoption of video collaboration apps and far greater reliance on remote, cloud-based services.

A worldwide outage to Google services that knocked YouTube, Docs and Gmail offline occurred as I tried to write this article on Google Docs. It served as a reminder of just how reliant we have become on such services.

Moving away from legacy data centres and apps to hybrid cloud will revolutionise client-oriented service-delivery in the private sector as well as citizen-oriented services in the public sector. The acceleration simply means that the future is closer than we might have expected.

Trade Wars: Globalisation and 5G

Over recent decades, global supply chains have opened new markets for products, provided sources of cost-effective labour and massively improved overall trade and cooperation. While society as a whole has benefited, some communities have felt left behind and resentful. Populist governments pursuing ‘America First’ or Brexit policies reached their zenith in 2020, before being exposed as hollow facades, built on lies and unrealistic promises. As I write this article, the US President and UK Prime Minister remain in denial. They have already done a great deal of damage and the hangover will be considerable.

In a largely futile trade war with China, the US focused on Huawei as a scapegoat to distract from its own lack of competitiveness in 5G. The Huawei 5G ban that it forced on many allies has come at a terrible cost. The UK has sacrificed its leadership position in 5G, incurring massive costs to replace existing Huawei equipment. As well as an even greater economic impact of as much as $18bn on its economy from the delay. All this comes on top of Brexit – another costly own goal.

On the eve of Christmas and the New Year, we are still waiting to hear whether there will be a Brexit deal and whether this will include a data-sharing agreement between the UK and EU with GDPR adequacy recognition for the UK.

Privacy: a decisive rebuke

Two years after the introduction of GDPR, enforcement remains patchy with the ICO and other regulators either slow to take action or actively slashing proposed fines. Some believe that litigation will act as a greater check on abuses.

The threats, however, remain the data harvesting and anti-competitive behaviour of the tech giants and the mass surveillance conducted by US authorities. The Schrems II case which overturned Privacy Shield was a major rebuke on the surveillance front. The new Digital Markets Unit in the UK and Digital Markets Act in the EU indicate that regulators are turning against the tech giants – with similar action from the Federal Trade Commission pending in the US. We will report on all of this as it unfolds.

Cybercrime risks

At the start of the year, it appeared that cyber risk was going to overtake financial risk as the greatest threat we face. Both were soon eclipsed, at least for the immediate term, by health concerns.

We have never been so interconnected or indeed so reliant on technology – and therefore so vulnerable to cybercrime. Many of my boldest predictions on data privacy and security have come true this year, with cybercrime and especially ransomware becoming commonplace. We maintain that paying such ransoms is unwise, as there’s no guarantee that you won’t be hit again. Paying out simply motives and funds the attackers to do more.

In recent days, the largest incident of all has been uncovered – the recent SolarWinds incident. The colossal supply chain hack potentially exposed more than 425 of the US Fortune 500, all of the top US accounting firms, telcos and all five branches of the US military, as well as the US Pentagon, State Department, NASA, NSA, Postal Service, NOAA, Department of Justice, and even the Office of the President of the United States. 

Ironically, the vulnerability here did not relate to products from black-listed companies like Russia’s Kaspersky Labs or China’s Huawei – both among the most heavily scrutinised vendors in the world. Instead, hacker gangs, believed to be Russian, exploited vulnerabilities in supposedly trusted vendors.

Starting with Microsoft Office 365 they are thought to have compromised the SolarWinds Orion IT monitoring platform, and we believe that this was then how they infiltrated major US government organisations. Indeed the SolarWinds issue was discovered when another trusted vendor, cybersecurity firm FireEye, set about trying to figure out how attackers got past its own defences.

As we look ahead, 2021 should at least see us get on top of the pandemic, but the same themes of AI, 5G, cloud, privacy and cybersecurity will continue to persist. 2020 may have had caused the odd detour and either sped up or slowed down things in places, but the overall direction of travel remains the same. Safe travels and happy New Year.

Replies (1)

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By Hugo Fair
31st Dec 2020 13:03

This is not a review ... just a set of diatribes (aka personal opinions if you're feeling generous) as window-dressing to advertise the author's interests (see his bio at bottom).

I've worked in various aspects of the IT industry for very nearly 50 years and (bad joke warning) not everything in it is binary! For instance, Cloud is not THE solution ... although it's an extremely important part of most solutions. As anyone with business experience will tell you all decisions are always about balancing risks and, in the case of Cloud, over-reliance/dependence on it is at best a hostage to fortune if not downright foolhardy.

Also, leaving aside all the unquantified (and already out-of-date) comments about Brexit, the statement that "It (the initial NHS app) failed to work, in contrast to the decentralised approach adopted by Google an Apple" is misleading in that it indicates the latter has been a success.
Whereas in the words of an official report - although it has been "downloaded more than 20.7 million times to date ... we don't know how many people have since uninstalled or turned it off, nor how many have ignored its self-isolate orders". So hardly an unqualified success by any criteria.

I wish everyone, including the author, a much improved 2021 ... but please don't take the article at all seriously in terms of planning for your technology requirements.

Thanks (3)