Tech grifters and how to avoid them
Picture credit: © 20TH CENTURY STUDIOS
After watching Guillermo del Toro’s stylish noir thriller Nightmare Alley – which tells the tale of carnival grifters in depression-era America, it struck me that Bradley Cooper’s charismatic, sociopathic, fake spiritualist would have thrived in Silicon Valley.
While still learning the tricks of the trade from two old-time clairvoyants in the film, an ingénue Cooper is taught how to read people and hook them into believing the medium’s fake insights.
“Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live,” they advise him. “They’re afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature.”
Back in the real world, the year started with the conviction of fallen unicorn founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was found guilty of defrauding investors after it was revealed the technology produced through her multi-billion dollar valued firm Theranos, tested for a range of diseases with just a pinprick of blood, was little more than 21st-century snake oil.
It’s interesting that one of the best-known frauds of this century was focused on both health and technology – ill health being age-old anxiety which has since become acerbated by the pandemic; and technology which is fast replacing religious belief as a panacea for all life’s ills.
Even outside health tech circles seductive medical-based jargon and metaphors are seeping their way into technology marketing. I raised an eyebrow the other week when the VP of sales at one cyber security firm recently referred to the technology he was pitching as being “like a vaccine, like a shot of Pfizer”.
Another cyber security firm Darktrace – a UK firm founded by a glamourous cabal of mathematicians, former spies from GCHQ and AI experts – has also come under fire for its marketing narrative.
Following a dramatic fall in its share price, some analysts began speculating last month over whether one of the reasons for its decline in value could be attributed to the fact that many of its resources (60% of all staff) were focused on sales and marketing – causing it to appear to be promising more than it could deliver.
As The Guardian reported last month: “Its security products are pitched as the digital equivalent of the human body’s ability to fight off illness They can “self-learn and self-heal”, operate as an “enterprise immune system” and have an “autonomous response capability” to tackle threats without instruction as they are detected.”
To be fair, this rhetoric builds on a basic level of cyber security language that is littered with health references. People’s password ‘hygiene’ for example, is often found to be lacking, which can make the average person feel very grubby about using their mother’s maiden name or the name of their first pet for the twentieth time that month.
Perhaps clever and relatable use of language is needed to hammer home the importance of cyber security for all businesses to all staff, whether they are working in tech roles or not. But how can investors or those with buying power avoid the danger of falling for subpar solutions that don’t fit the needs of their business?
Even canny operators like Rupert Murdoch were blinded by the charms of Theranos.
Science and technology reporting can involve treading a fine line between tech idealism and tech scepticism and it’s sometimes hard to nail. It’s all too easy to get carried away with a buzzy tech or a company that you know will draw readers in.
For every Elizabeth Holmes, there are probably more Sarah Gilberts (the woman who helped design the Oxford Vaccine) – but flashy sales demos and pitches need to be followed up a string of questions as well as a common sense check.
For instance, how does this tech benefit businesses and what applications does it carry out that current systems don’t offer? Is this a technology for technology’s sake? (I could mention some NFT ideas here…).
If it is a software or cloud-based product is the data easily accessible and shared with the customer? Does it come with in-built cyber security (or is that responsibility passed on to the customer)? Is it a platform that accounts for both current and future requirements?
Facilities serving enterprises now need to be able to support IoT technologies, machine learning and AI which requires systems to have open access and work with multiple vendors – so can the tech be integrated easily into other platforms?
It’s also always worth asking more about the history of the company selling the product. Who are the key people involved in the business (the founders rather than any high-profile backers)? Do they have any other affiliations? If they have rebranded recently (which appears to be happening all the time in tech at the moment), then why?
This list of questions feels inexhaustible sometimes, and the above questions are quite generic. Each business has its own individual needs and stakeholders and must identify the best technologies necessary to maintain the mission-critical systems that serve them and work for their own business goals.
But by doing this due diligence and looking at their businesses’ overall objectives, the risk of being scammed for twentieth-century snake oil decreases. Because while we all love the tale of a grifter, the only place we should really be seeing them is on the big screen.
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