How to detect fake anything in a zero trust world

Bob Sullivan

Fake News is stoking violence and helping destroy our democracy. Fake pills make people sick and can even kill them. Fake foods, like fake olive oil, or mislabeled fish, rip consumers off and steal profits from honest companies. The world is becoming overrun by fake everything, says Avivah Litan, renowned fraud analyst at consultancy firm Gartner. Counterfeit products are a $3 trillion problem, she says…But today’s topic is even bigger than fraud. It’s about a threat to reality itself.

In a new paper, called How to Detect Fake Anything in a Zero Trust World, Litan argues that a mix of technology and human intelligence can beat back this problem of fake everything. But only if someone — consumers? government regulators? corporations? — is willing to pay the price. I spoke with her recently: You can listen to our conversation at the link below.

A few highlights from our talk:

Imagine being able to scan a barcode on a piece of salmon at the supermarket and being able to see the fish’s journey from the river where it was caught, to the port where it was dropped off, to the plane that took it to your city, to the truck that took it to your store.  That’s the promise of blockchain, which could help consumers decide they prefer fish caught from a specific place. They could also demand it be caught in a certain way, and report fraud or mislabeled products.  Litan gets most fired up talking about fake Olive Oil. She thinks blockchain public audit trails could help stop that, too.

Using these tools to cast a wider net — pun intended — Litan thinks tech could help consumers/citizens regain the grasp of reality they are losing. Fake news and fake cures have been a problem for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issue into sharp relief.

“The hope is there is no shortage of innovation in this space,” she tells me. “The problem is (companies) won’t do it unless (consumers) pay a premium.”

Litan is perhaps the media’s most-quoted expert on credit card fraud and identity theft, dating back to the early years of credit card database hacking and the rise of fraud-fighting software.  She sees some parallels between the race for banks and retailers to stop credit card hacking — which costs the companies billions — and their relative indifference to identity theft — in which consumers bear a lot of the cost.

But the rise of fake everything, and the collapse of trust worldwide, is a far bigger problem. I’ve started calling it the trust market crash.  It’s an enormous challenge in a world of commerce that’s built on trust.

Innovation will be critical, she said, because government regulators — well-intentioned as they may be — won’t be able to keep up.

“The world is moving way too fast for our political systems,” she said.  Current solutions fall far short. What is an Italian olive oil consumer to do, outside of grow their own olives, Litan joked.   “Hopefully the technology will evolve where you have the solutions at your fingertips.”

Her paper offers the “Gartner Model for Truth Assessment,” with different blended technology and human solutions for the problem of fake.  But much more needs to be done.

“The best hope is a consumer revolution,” she said. “We’ve had enough of this fake news, (people) shoving all this fake stuff down our throats.”

Avivah has posted a short blog entry about her paper. The paper itself is behind Gartner’s paywall.

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