Brave New (Digital) World – The Washington Post

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Digital transformation was becoming the new normal long before 2020. But two years of living through a pandemic have fundamentally changed consumers’ relationship to technology. It’s also placed a new urgency on the need for every business to focus on a digital-first strategy, whether that business is a grocery store, hospital, video game design studio or multinational bank.
Consumers have spent more time than ever on their personal devices during the pandemic, and even companies that had the best digital tools and infrastructure in place faced unprecedented demand and strain, as well as threats from malicious actors. In response, these companies adapted, making their digital services faster, better, safer and more easily accessible.
Here’s how five industries managed the change — and how people’s daily lives are better for it.
Just a few years ago, most consumers didn’t even dream of having someone else pick their apples or bananas for them at the supermarket. Then the pandemic hit, lockdowns went into effect, and, to lower their risk of Covid-19 exposure, hundreds of thousands of consumers opted to order more products online. Clothing, toiletries, pantry staples, fresh produce and more began to be delivered, touch-free, to their cars or doorsteps.
Online purchases are as old as the Internet itself, but Digital Commerce 360 estimates that the pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce trend by at least two years, with online sales reaching $791.70 billion in 2020, up 32.4 percent from 2019. The trend is still growing. U.S. e-commerce sales for the second quarter of 2021 hit $211.7 billion, up 9.1 percent from the same quarter in 2020.
Retailers that didn’t already have an e-commerce presence had to pivot quickly to meet the demand for frictionless online shopping experiences that offered easy access, convenient fulfilment, multichannel alignment, payment options and high user security.
To keep up with the influx of users who wanted to shop, pay and schedule deliveries online, retailers turned to digital solutions like edge computing systems. Rather than forcing data to travel over a long network, these systems can store, process and analyze data locally, helping to reduce latency, letting consumers all over the country choose products faster and see updated delivery times sooner. And with so many transactions taking place online, retailers upped their security offerings as well, using solutions like bot managers to help safeguard consumer data from malicious actors and keep the shopping process smooth for users.
“I think the trend to online is unstoppable,” said Gerhard Giese, an industry strategist at Akamai Technologies. “The shops that flourished during the pandemic were the ones that were ready to grow fast, and that picked up the online trade.”
The vast majority of consumers tried new shopping behavior during the pandemic, and most intend to continue it. With the playing field for online shopping open, retailers may be able to gain market share with more engaging and personalized e-commerce experiences.
Financial Services
Though online banking has been rising steadily in recent years, Giese said, many banks were still very old-fashioned as the world entered the pandemic. As many industries were making the leap to the cloud, he said, many banks still employed self-hosted services. And it wasn’t only financial services companies that were slow to transition; it was also the customers, especially the baby boomers, who were more likely to prefer banking in person.
As a result, at the start of the covid-19 lockdowns, said Giese, banking call services were completely overwhelmed by the amount of people dialing in and either couldn’t or wouldn’t set up online systems. Some customers reported experiencing wait times of four hours or more during lockdown, and some banks pulled their customer service functions entirely.
“The transition in banking was almost forced,” Giese said. “And it also put into warp speed the usage of online payment systems.”
The onset of the pandemic led more consumers to make the shift to digital. In April 2020, new mobile banking registrations jumped 200 percent. Banks needed to make the online banking experience as easy, dependable and secure as possible — as fast as possible — for a consumer base that had just ballooned in size. At the same time, digital attacks on banks also increased dramatically, putting banks in a delicate situation of having to carefully balance user expectation and security. Across the financial industry, web attacks and DDoS attacks rose 62 percent and 110 percent, respectively, from 2019 to 2020.
To keep up, many financial services companies leveraged solutions like strong multi-factor authentication, application security tools and bot managers that block attackers before they infiltrate and overwhelm financial infrastructure. As scammers used the covid-19 crisis to redouble their phishing attacks with the promise of financial assistance, these companies used digital tools to keep consumer information and wealth safe. Meanwhile, videoconferencing and text-based digital solutions, powered by content delivery networks, allowed consumers to get answers and help while brick-and-mortar branches remained closed. Banks, payment companies and consumers aren’t likely to return to the old ways.
“I think a lot of these changes are without a return ticket,” he said. “They will stay for good. For example, moving services to the cloud is much easier for banks now. Before there were a lot of naysayers within the banks — people who basically said, ‘Our regulations don’t allow it.’ With the right pressure, it turned out the regulations did allow it. In essence, banks have understood that the digital part of their business will become even more important in the foreseeable future.”
Before covid-19, the healthcare industry was primed for change. “There were innovations that were brewing, but there was no real catalyst,” said Bridget Meuse, senior industry marketing specialist for sustainability, public sector and healthcare life science at Akamai Technologies. “There was no forcing function to help us get there. The pandemic was the flint to healthcare’s digital transformation flame and has been massively disruptive to healthcare in a number of ways.”
One big transition: an explosion in the use of telemedicine. Although telehealth existed long before covid-19, virtual appointments between patients and medical professionals over phone and video have been a large part of the transformation of the healthcare industry during the pandemic. According to figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telehealth visits increased 154 percent during the last week of March 2020.
Expanded access to telehealth visits had multiple benefits for both patients and providers: it reduced the risk of covid-19 exposure for staff and patients, eased demand on medical facilities overwhelmed with covid-19 patients and helped preserve supplies of personal protective equipment, which was scarce during the early months of the pandemic.
However, the shift toward digital also increased the level of targeted attacks by cyber criminals on online healthcare networks and electronic health records. According to a report by IBM, cyberattacks on healthcare doubled from 2019 to 2020, with 28 percent of the attacks including an element of ransomware. This meant that healthcare IT departments not only had to ensure a smooth online experience for providers and patients, but they also had to mitigate any possible security threats.
Balancing security and ease is key, said Meuse, who recommends that healthcare providers implement security solutions including: identity access management tools that only allows healthcare workers access to a certain level of patient data; secure web gateways to monitor traffic and block users from accessing phishing links; and micro-segmentation strategy to protect against ransomware.
“At its very core, micro-segmentation protects against the inevitable back window in any cybersecurity solution and keeps bad actors only in a specific room rather than having access to the entire network,” said Meuse. “Put all together, this is Zero Trust access thinking: No one can be fully trusted. You only give your users access to what they absolutely need.”
Only 11 percent of consumers reported using telehealth prior to the pandemic — now 40 percent say they will use telehealth going forward. That massive jump means healthcare providers must continue to evolve digitally.
Today’s digital era has delivered a slew of on-demand, over-the-top, or OTT, video streaming services, which has meant more freedom for the consumer to watch what they want, when they want, where they want and on whatever device they want. And with many folks confined to their homes at the outset of the pandemic, streaming movies and TV shows became more popular than ever. Streaming subscriptions grew 50 percent between 2019 and 2020, and the average American now spends more time consuming digital media than traditional media.
While the exponential growth of OTT in the early days of lockdown has now tapered, the shift in customer behavior remains. OTT video service providers are under pressure to match the quality and reliability of broadcast television. Content delivery networks, pioneered by Akamai, allow OTT video service providers to provide consistent, flawless video experiences at massive scale, anywhere in the world and on any device.
However, this has also led the video streaming industry to become one of the most attacked in terms of piracy of content, said Shane Keats, director of marketing, media and entertainment, at Akamai Technologies. In fact, the number of attacks is on par with online banking and online retail, making the deployment of end-to-end security solutions — including bot managers and web application protection — just as crucial as high-quality content delivery.
“As the industry has moved towards digital distribution, the potential profits have skyrocketed for film and television,” Keats said. “But that increase in profits also means that profit-seeking attackers are now focusing more on the industry.”
If content is pirated, both producers and distributors could start to lose revenue as rights buyers become less willing to pay premiums for content that’s no longer exclusive. Beyond piracy, users can also have their credentials stolen and used to break into their other devices, Keats explains.
By necessity, video production and delivery workflows are extremely collaborative and distributed, which makes it difficult to secure every part of the value chain at an enterprise-class level and still allow all the collaboration necessary. This exposes many attack surfaces to bad actors, thereby putting OTT profits at risk. Because security is an industry-wide challenge, vendors need to work together to build end-to-end protection.
“Akamai arguably has the best visibility into what attackers are doing at any given time,” Keats said. “Even if another vendor has the best solution for how to deal with one attack vector, we might have the best solution for another. We’ve started to collaborate more and more with these vendors to give our shared customers what they need.”
For collaborative solutions to work, OTT services also need to speak more openly about their challenges, featured and benefits.
“Piracy is a collective action problem, and we’re stronger when we face it together,” Keats said. “Competing on security just means that, eventually, the bad guys are going to turn their sights on you. Instead, let’s compete on producing and delivering the best entertainment.”
Video gaming was already booming before the pandemic hit, with the industry raking in $200 billion a year and growing. And while being in lockdown didn’t necessarily change the needs of a gamer overall, it did intensify the needs and desires of people who played games, said Jonathan Singer, senior industry marketing manager for entertainment at Akamai Technologies. It also brought new people into the gaming world — people who were stuck inside and looking for a way to interact with friends and family.
Gaming as an industry has always been ahead of the curve, Singer said, and gamers have been moving toward purchasing games online rather than in-store since 2013. Video game files are notoriously large, with some new games topping 100 gigabytes. As consumers have come to expect fully digital downloads of those files, video game companies rely on Akamai’s edge delivery platform to keep things running smoothly, especially on launch days, when millions of gamers might be trying to download the file all at the same time.
“We make sure that people can all download the newest, biggest game on launch day without the entire internet falling over,” said Singer, who noted that better content delivery improves games’ performance, helping them run faster and with less friction long after launch day.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, gaming was self-contained; you popped a cartridge into your console or installed a disc on your PC — and that was your experience, said Singer. Today, the infrastructure is quite different, and the big challenge is connection.
“People needed to be able to play with their friends when they wanted, and with so many more people playing at once, there were real strains on the infrastructure that games companies had,” Singer said.
Now, game designers and players can take advantage of the flexibility and power of microservice architectures — a myriad of connected and interactive elements that deepen the gaming experience, from virtual stores and currencies to online chats, leaderboards and matchmaking.
“There’re all of these different connected services to the game now that if they break or are slow, they can ruin your playing experience or make you entirely unable to play the game,” said Singer. “And that starts with authentication because most games have an online component now where they want you to authenticate on the ‘net before you can actually play them.”
Video game companies are also under more pressure than ever from hackers who are trying to steal personal data or simply cause disruption. In its      State of the Internet security report, “Gaming in a Pandemic,” Akamai reported a 340 percent increase in web application attacks against gaming customers over the last year, and a 224 percent increase in credential stuffing in which stolen usernames and passwords are used to gain unauthorized access to user accounts. Protecting player accounts has become top of mind for the gaming industry in the last year.
“Modern games have so many moving pieces, so many connected pieces, so it’s incredibly difficult,” says Singer. “Everyone wants gaming to be fun. Part of that is having a low-friction experience. It needs to be easy to obtain a game, load a game, play a game, and, if any of those breaks, then the player experience breaks, and no one’s able to have fun.”