Tarun Ghulati: “We need proactive measures to detect, prevent, and respond to cyber attacks”

In a super electoral year like 2024, people and governments around the world are focusing on how to maintain public trust, how to keep elections secure, and how to effectively fight disinformation and fake news. In the final stretch of his campaign for Mayor of London, we interviewed Tarun Ghulati, President & CEO at Squared Watermelon Ltd and GCA Strategic Advisor, as part of our “Global Voices” series of interviews.
He answers our questions with a focus on ensuring safety in an increasingly digital environment.

Question: In the broader context of city governance, how do you perceive the importance of digital safety and cybersecurity?

You’ve got to take proactive measures to detect, prevent, and respond to cyberattacks because cities rely on power grids, water supply systems, transportation networks, communication systems, all of which are very, very vulnerable. Ensuring their security is crucial to the uninterrupted functioning of a city.

Also, from a citizen’s point of view, data privacy is important. City governments collect and store vast amounts of data and residents rely on the government to make sure that data remains protected, including financial records. Safeguarding that data is essential to maintaining citizen trust and maintaining privacy regulations.

Public safety is also important to maintain emergency response systems and ensure economic stability and business continuity. Also, intellectual property protection is vital; you’ve got to keep investing in innovative technology, and protecting IP is critical to reduce theft and foster proprietary information so that people continue to innovate and attract investment.

There’s a lot of talk in the world about smart city initiatives, which also means more and more connectivity to bring efficiency and sustainability. That lends itself to various devices and other things that get connected, and more vulnerability comes with that.

Maintaining robust cybersecurity systems is key and obviously, education and awareness are critical because people may not be aware of what they should or shouldn’t do. Digital literacy is important from that point of view.

As someone deeply engaged in the electoral process, what concerns do you harbor regarding the proliferation of fake news and disinformation campaigns in the electoral landscape?

I think that’s an excellent question, particularly as I’m standing as an independent candidate for mayor {of London}.

It’s important that all the candidates ensure that there’s no fake news and disinformation because that can undermine democracy on a wider scale. False information can manipulate public opinion, undermine trust in democratic processes, and distort election outcomes. Manipulation of voters is feasible because specific targets of demographics can be biased, and they can inculcate a sense of fear when you manipulate voter behavior.

It’s critical that false and fake news is not given the time to proliferate. Misinformation erodes trust in institutions, including the media and electoral processes.

I think there is a larger role that governments and election commissions and others have to play to keep a level playing field.

Apart from erosion of trust, fake news can also create social divisions by spreading divisive narratives and amplifying certain societal tensions.

And foreign interference, obviously – there may be hostile actors that can exploit digital platforms to sow discord and influence election outcomes. Fact checking and challenging facts can be very costly.

I’m an independent candidate for mayor of London. As you can imagine, I have to challenge all sorts of facts that the candidates may be portraying, and the public for that matter. You can be swayed into thinking a particular false narrative.

There can be voter suppression, because disinformation campaigns may aim to suppress voter turnout by spreading false information about voting procedures, polling locations, and stuff like that.

There’s a role here for the government, the election commission, and the candidates themselves to ensure truth in what they project.

Integrity and trust are the most valuable currency anybody can have, because my family has been involved in public service over the last three centuries. And for me, that acts as a guiding light.

When people start to think there’s so much false information that they don’t know the difference between what’s false and what’s the truth, that can affect turnout and participation of voters which has been happening in the last elections, I think about close to 60 odd percent of voters didn’t come out.

People need to feel that change can be brought about. As a global ambassador and Strategic Advisor to the Global Cyber Alliance, which I’ve been privileged to be part of for about five years, I think cybersecurity risk is true and too many people are victims of fraud and other problems like phishing attempts.

There is also an element of legal and ethical dilemmas, because how do you address fake news and disinformation, which raises a lot of complex legal and ethical questions regarding freedom of speech and censorship and all that sort of stuff. How do you control online content?

It’s also incumbent upon a lot of the social media providers to ensure that they take stern and stiff action to control that.

So, whilst it may be a longish response to your question, I think it is incumbent on somebody like me to bring forward to your listeners today that we need to have a joined up approach to cyber risk.

Question: Could you share your overarching vision for the future of the digital world and the key priorities you believe are essential for its security?

I envision a world where the digital world guides technology, enriches life, fosters innovation, and promotes global connectivity, all while ensuring security, privacy, and ethical use of data.

I want [London] to be the most digitally connected city that will foster growth, perhaps using artificial intelligence.

How do you do that ethically, responsibility, and for the benefit of society? Creating cyber resilience is key for me, because that will help develop defenses against cyber threats and proactive measures to detect and prevent and respond to cyber attacks.

And here again, I wish to highlight that GCA plays a key role, particularly for entities and businesses and individuals, all for free. And that there is no other entity that worldwide would be doing something of that scale and size. We need to ensure that laws and practices to safeguard personal information, promote transparency, and empower individuals control their data. It’s critical because most people feel they want to control aspects of their lives, but they may not be aware of it all and they may not understand cyber risk.

Privacy preservation is important because holding privacy laws, implementing privacy-enhancing technologies, forcing data minimization processes, and fostering a cultural respect of privacy is also critical.

That’s the sort of future I’m looking at – where people build trust in technology.

I think there is a need for international cooperation because the world is joined up on the basis of trade and London is a global center. There are over 270 diaspora from different nations that call London home, 300 languages.  

You can collaborate in global partnerships to establish norms, standards, frameworks for cybersecurity, data governance, and digital cooperation and capacity building.

It should be a continuous process to ensure that there is enough training, education, and workforce development because you can bring in the best systems but it doesn’t matter if people are not trained in using those systems.

Responsible innovation is also important because integrity and security and privacy considerations are critical regulatory frameworks that need to keep evolving to ensure digital connectivity, cyber connectivity, and all that.

People swear by the name GCA because there are big partners that we’ve tied up with globally. There’s an old military strategy, force multiplier, where you have a certain amount of force or hardware behind you, but when you punch away it is harder or stronger than what’s there. GCA is punching its weight a lot stronger.

And that is the vision I seem to be building in the minds of the people here, with London being a global city. We need to ensure it’s also the most digitally connected, which will foster all sorts of technological advancement.

Just to conclude, we’d love to know more about your hopes and dreams, where you are at this present moment and how you feel…

I’m, as you know, on the last leg of this campaign. But, as I say, strong people need to continue, and so I hope to win this election as an independent.

The idea is that politicians have blurred the vision for London and Londoners. It should be only about the people, for the people, and by the people, because we elect representatives to represent us.

And you know, we utilize a common purpose and provide basic services of security, safety, transformation, transportation, and a good living and affordable housing and things like that.

But that’s been largely lacking now in London and people are feeling a bit let down, left out, and I want to bring back the smiles on the faces of everyone.  Thank you very much.

Previous interview on our Global Series: