2019 was a great year for tech's favorite genre, sci-fi. After all, it was the setting for all-timers like Bladerunner and Akira.
2020, on the other hand, basically just has Cyberpunk 2020.
Which isn't to say that's not an accurate picture. If the raft of experts we've compiled to unpack all the upcoming tech trends, challenges, and phenomena of 2020 have anything to say about it, our cyberpunk dystopia will only kick into gear during the upcoming year.
In the near future, big data is getting bigger, security risks are growing, and state-sponsored hackers are hellbent on crippling our national infrastructure. It's a natural progression from last year, when the average cost of cybercrime to an organization leapt from $1.4 million to $13 million, according to a global study from Accenture.
Turn up the Leonard Cohen, because our tech predictions want it darker. Here are 12 takeaways on everything from industry-wide 5G security flaws to IoT-powered corporate espionage.
One big trend the entire tech community is excited about is the blazingly fast 5G wireless standard that began deploying in 2019.
But cool your jets a little. 2020 won't be 5G's breakout year, even if it the new tech is well on its way.
“We don't think that 5G matters… at least not yet,” says Katie Jansen, Chief Marketing Officer at AppLovin. “5G still has a lot of technical hurdles to overcome before it becomes mainstream. Tellingly, Apple doesn’t even have an iPhone that supports 5G. Even with the increased speeds of 5G, mobile games will always have to be optimized to be lightweight, responsive, and most importantly, fun. Faster network speeds won’t increase ‘fun,’ and neither will high-resolution graphics. What makes mobile games great is the creativity of their developers who have to work within the constraints of limited storage, processing power, and network speeds.”
Jansen isn't alone: Shehzad Merchant, Chief Technology Officer at Gigamon, said much the same.
“The real benefits of 5G won’t be as apparent in 2020 but in the years beyond. In this regard, 2020 will only be an investment year for 5G.”
And to make matters worse, all those companies hoping to speed up their 5G adaptation might just be leaving themselves open to security issues that they could have avoided by taking the slow-but-steady path.
5G adaptation will open security risks
It's not rare for tech teams to fudge the basics of security when rushing the latest tech out to their end users. In 2020, those troublesome updates will likely center around 5G, explains Ellen Benaim, information security officer at Templafy.
“With new technology comes new threats, and as 5G is rapidly developed for further integration in 2020, new threats are looming on the horizon. If companies rely too heavily on 5G from the start, security teams will have trouble getting up to speed quickly enough to develop, implement and enforce security protocols that protect their organization in a 5G world.”
In the years to come, 5G will be huge. We just need to remember not to move so fast that we blow the security doors off in the process.
But it's not all bad news. 5G will come to the rescue in at least one major way, by helping emergency response teams take their services to the next level.
“One industry in particular – emergency response – is expected to mesh 5G networks with IoT capabilities to save lives,” says Harish Pai, Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer at Zyter. “Equipped with actionable data and real-time responses, cities and governments will be more proactive when it comes to responding to emergencies, evacuations and crime. Levering the interconnected power of 5G and IoT, emergency response teams will be able to instantly pinpoint people, timing, location and cause.”
It's not a moment too soon. Weather-related disasters are increasing with climate change, and will shape the future of tech in 2020.
Natural disasters will spur more recovery readiness
Increasingly warm weather around the globe is leading to greater and more intense natural disasters. Penny Gralewski, Solutions Lead at Commvault, cites incidents including wildfires in California, historic flooding in Venice, and drought in Africa.
“If we can learn one thing from these headlines,” Gralewski adds, “it’s that weather is becoming more unpredictable and damaging – for communities and enterprises alike. That means enterprises need to be ready – ready to recover from a flood, ready to transfer backups of mission critical applications over to another cloud region, ready for unexpected power outages that require them to put their disaster recovery plans in motion.”
It's a looming question that IT will need to be ready for, so we can expect forward-looking companies to start intiating any relevant readiness prep in the new year.
Health-tech startups will dominate
Maximilian Krause, owner of software agency Krause Software, sees a raft of smarter, better health-tech companies popping up across 2020.
“Health-tech start-ups are some of the most anticipated ones for 2020. The healthcare industry is changing drastically through innovations and relaxation of laws all around the world. Healthcare is an old and mostly broken system in the US and other countries too, and there are huge chances for the government, insurers and patients to save time, energy and money through digitizing the industry.”
A few big areas to improve on include the time it takes a family doctor to complete a checkup. Between waiting time, filling out questionnaires, and the actual exam, it might take a patient an hour and a half, but clinical studies in a few European countries have cut the time to an average of nine minutes when consultating through telemedicine.
“As you can see, this not only has advantages for the patients themselves who can make better use of their precious time and won’t have to visit a doctor but can instead get a consultation from the comfort of their own home, but for the doctor, as well as the insurer and the government as well.”
It's a win-win: the doctors consult more patients without lowering their standards, while the insurer and the government save money thanks to shorter consultation times.
Corporate espionage goes big on IoT
The internet of things (IoT) has always dealt with security issues, and the fact that so many devices tap into enterprise networks is a big security blind spot. In 2020, Ben Seri, VP of Research at Armis, sees this risk playing out in a novel way: corporate espionage.
“Because corporations lack visibility into the connected devices in their network, they are unprepared to ferret out snoops who gained undetected access through IoT security flaws,” Seri says.
“For example, Microsoft recently spotted Strontium attempting to compromise popular IoT devices across multiple customer locations by using VoIP phones, an office printer and a video decoder as an entry point into their targets' internal networks. Once in, they scanned for other vulnerable systems to expand this initial foothold and moved laterally. I expect that this is only a prologue to a huge influx of corporate espionage attacks.”
If you're currently working on a spy novel, it looks like the headlines in 2020 will offer plenty of fodder for it. And the story should include an AI-loving superhacker, because that's our next entry.
The rise of the AI-powered hacker
Darktrace’s Director of Strategic Threats, Marcus Fowler, offers further dark predictions for cyber security in 2020: We'll see artificial intelligence used by hackers to target businesses.
“Incorporating AI in attacks will allow cyber-criminals to achieve greater scale and speed than ever seen before,” Fowler explains. “This is because the manual effort of tailoring an attack to specific individuals will, in large part, be automated. ‘Offensive AI’ malware will be able to learn about its environment and use the information that it sees to better direct the attack, while identifying the most valuable data to steal.
“‘Impersonation attacks’ will become more common as AI is used to automatically generate spear-phishing emails that expertly mimic the writing style of trusted contacts and colleagues, or even to create ‘deep fake’ videos designed to confuse. While human attacks would need hours of social network research to perform such an attack, the AI attacker can do this in seconds.”
And it gets worse. While most AI-powered hackers might just be interested in businesses and can be bought off, state-sponsored hackers have grander aims.
State-sponsored attacks on national infrastructure
“Ransomware ran riot in 2019, devasting more than 70 local governments across the US alone,” Marcus Fowler says. In 2020, it'll be smarter than ever before, he foresees.
“While most ransomware to date has infiltrated traditional IT networks, and is financially-motivated, attackers are likely to develop more advanced ransomware that is specifically designed to disrupt critical national infrastructure. These fast-moving campaigns will target industrial control networks within the energy, telecommunications, water, and transportation sectors, as well as other systems on which public services rely. For these state-sponsored hackers, the interruption of services is not a by-product of a money-making mission – it’s their key objective.”
With all those hackers around, it's good to hear that citizens' fears of lax data security and social platforms' expliotation will have an impact in 2020. Here's the best prediction on our list yet:
2020 will be a watershed year for data privacy
Privacy laws are passing like never before in the US, and we'll see the results across 2020. Businesses will adjust to meet regulations including the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), with lawsuits nailing any that don't move fast enough.
The data gold mines are closing up, according to KJ Dearie, product specialist and privacy consultant for Termly. We may even see a national data privacy law passed in the US.
“Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urged Congress to pass a federal privacy law to better regulate the big business gold rush on user data. Shortly thereafter, the Internet Association launched a campaign advocating for national unity on data privacy, calling the nation’s current privacy standards ‘fragmented.' A new era for data, and the laws that govern it, is only just beginning. Stricter and more far-reaching data security laws are on the horizon, and 2020 is set to be the dawn of a new age in data privacy.”
Independently, Rita Heimes, Data Protection Officer at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), gave Tech.co the same prediction, saying that in 2020, “U.S. Congress will feel tremendous pressure to pass a comprehensive, pre-emptive consumer privacy law.”
There's one potential path forward in lieu of a national law, however: A confusing morass of new laws determined on a state-by-state basis, which will create a tough balancing act for businesses and ultimately slow down expansion everywhere. “Unless there is consistency of approach between states, it will become more difficult for companies to comply with all the different policies out there,” cautions Dave Brunswick, VP of Solutions at Cleo.
“Enterprises will react in one of two very different ways,” says Chad Meley, VP of Marketing at Teradata. “Some will take a risk-averse posture by curtailing the collection and use of customer data to avoid exposure while they monitor enforcement. Others will go the other way and embrace transparency above and beyond new legal mandates. Companies like Apple are already showing the way by using this as an opportunity to create competitive advantage with services that put the consumer in control of data and privacy, including the ability to request a copy of all data associated with your Apple ID.”
Ultimately, a large handful of the experts we approached for predictions all arrived at the same conclusion. 2020, they say, will mark a turning point for data privacy, largely due to the efforts of privacy-conscious consumers.
Remote work grows, thanks to conferencing innovations
Another spot of relatively good news? Remote work will continue to grow in the new year, and it'll be an even more attractive and painless way to hold down a career.
“The trend of remote working is not slowing down and is quickly becoming the new normal for professionals across many industries,” says Ron Holtdijk, Director Business Communication at Sennheiser. “This wide adoption of remote work is presenting new and unique challenges to IT personnel, who are tasked with enabling seamless collaboration despite any distance.
“Thanks to advanced audio innovations like adaptive beamforming technology and cutting-edge software integration, the trend towards remote working will continue to grow, ensuring true integration of remote and on-site teams.”
“It has also been proven that voting machines contain security flaws from decades ago, but that we’ve run out of time to find and correct the bugs in these machines before the 2020 election. Due to foreign interference, the hacking of voter registration databases, and the exploitation of flaws in voting machines, there will be even more controversy and concern over the integrity of the 2020 election than there was in 2016. However, this widespread concern should serve as a catalyst for change moving forward – even if it’s too late to make these changes for 2020. There is simply too much at stake to neglect these issues indefinitely. Voters, legislators, and tech providers will need to come together to ensure greater cybersecurity throughout election.”
Other big targets in 2020 include the first ever online U.S. census and the Olympic games in Tokyo, notes Mounir Hahad, head of the Juniper Threat Labs at Juniper Networks.
One of those election weak links that we should have addressed already? Peter Goldstein, CTO and Co-founder Valimail calls out email security specifically when it comes to the election.
“Email is implicated in more than 90% of all cybersecurity attacks, and election infrastructure is also vulnerable to email-based attacks. This means email security must be a priority for thwarting interference with the 2020 presidential election.
But research shows the majority of U.S. states are overlooking this vulnerability. Only 5% of email domains associated with local election officials across the U.S. have implemented and enforced DMARC. DMARC is a widely accepted open standard that ensures only authorized senders can send emails from a particular domain – it’s one of the most basic and highly effective means of stopping phishing attacks, which is why the Department of Homeland Security mandated its use for federal agencies in 2017. Yet below the federal level, governments remain vulnerable. In May 2019 we learned Russian hackers breached two county election systems in Florida via a spear-phishing campaign, and in November we learned of a phishing-based ransomware attack on Louisiana during an election cycle. Because only a tiny percentage of counties and states have DMARC configured at enforcement, email is an easy way in for malicious actors looking to disrupt our elections.”
You heard it here first. Or you've been hearing it endlessly since 2016. Depends on who you follow on Twitter.
We'll take a hard look at AI Bias
“With AI creeping into more areas of our lives than ever,” says Nigel Tozer, Solutions Director EMEA, Commvault, “companies in this space will have to double-down on eradicating, or at least minimizing, any bias embedded in their AI. This will mean pre-processing and profiling of data prior to using in AI systems – so once again, data quality will take center stage, but for different reasons than previous years.”
This makes sense. The tech giants have seen their share of struggles with AI that repeat the systemic prejudices of their makers thanks to the flawed data that machine learning technology has to learn from. And the companies have already begun responding appropriately, such as when Amazon ditched a resume-crunching AI that had started dinging any CVs with the word “women” in them.
Will we fix our AI bias fast enough? Not according to our last prediction.
…But not until an AI imprisons an innocent victim
Someone in the know will manipulate AI to wrongly put an innocent person in prison, says James Carder, Chief Security Officer and VP of LogRhythm Labs.
“Because people train artificial intelligence (AI), AI adopts the same human biases we thought it would ignore. However, this hasn’t stopped the legal system from employing it,” Carder says.
“Just last year, a judge ordered Amazon to turn over Echo recordings in a double murder case. With AI already primed to make biased decisions based on the information it receives, an insider could exploit this to feed it false information to more directly implicate someone of a crime. In making AI more human, the likelihood that it makes mistakes will increase.”
It's tough to argue with Carder, given the flaws present in our justice system as it is. And this seems like an appropriate note to end our series of (mostly) depressing predictions for the trajectory of the tech industry in 2020.
The continued fallout of poor past tech decisions is unavoidable, whether it's imprisoning an innocent person or security holes a hacker can sic an AI on.
But that doesn't mean we can't push forwards with the right solutions to craft a better world. From improving our data regulation laws to tackling AI bias head on, we'll start guiding our technological innovations towards a brighter future in 2020.
Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for more than a decade. He was a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry, for which he was named a Digital Book World 2018 award finalist. His work has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect, and he has an art history book on 1970s sci-fi out from Abrams Books in 2023. In the meantime, he's hunting down the latest news on VPNs, POS systems, and the future of tech.