Managing Environmental Data Securely in the Age of AI
In recent years, we have witnessed first-hand how the world is becoming increasingly data-driven. Organizations across all industries now trust in reliably sourced and aggregated data to drive critical business decisions and operations. This data dependence has extended to the environmental sector as well, with ecological data playing a pivotal role in sustainability efforts and net-zero targets.
It’s also evident demonstrating robust security in data sourcing and management reinforces consumer and investor trust in brands striving to make the world greener and more environmentally friendly. However, as our reliance on data grows, so do the risks associated with it.
Using AI Responsibly for Environmental Research and Data
Environmental data often contains sensitive information that could be misused if compromised. Not to mention, this data could be used in misinformed content. Factors like endangered species’ locations, proprietary research and climate models, require robust cybersecurity measures to keep them protected.
In the age of AI, with LLMs (large language models) and generative AI tools becoming widely spoken about in everyday conversation, balancing the important facets of data security and technological progress becomes especially crucial for environmental professionals.
On the one hand, AI promises to revolutionize sustainability efforts through rapid content production, accurate predictions, optimized systems and widespread automation. On the other hand, it introduces new security risks that must be addressed. There’s also the underlying reliability and validity concerns with AI-generated content that’s dispensed without supervision or oversight.
Organizations seeking to leverage AI while keeping their data secure need to implement comprehensive measures across several areas within their business. Integrating AI brings many productivity and efficiency benefits, but successful balancing with supervision will ensure these benefits do not come at a risk to the integrity of environmental data.
Access Controls – Keeping Data in the Right Hands
Access controls regulate who can view and interact with data within an organization’s systems. For environmental data security, it’s crucial to limit access strictly on a need-to-know basis to authorized personnel such as researchers, ecologists, suppliers and analysts, among others.
Some best practices for managing access across an organization’s estate include:
- Role-based access – Grant permissions based on job roles that require data, rather than individual users on an ad-hoc basis. Adopting this approach makes access easier to monitor and adjust.
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA) – Require additional credentials like one-time codes, valid email links or biometrics to log in. MFA prevents unauthorized access to communal systems and the opportunity of them being compromised by malicious individuals. These can be bolstered with the use of unique and strong password policies.
- Just-in-time (JIT) access – Provide temporary credentials set to automatically expire after short periods. JIT access mitigates potential breaches by eliminating permanent credentials that could be leaked or mistakenly land in the hands of those without adequate security clearance.
- Least privilege principle – Only provide the minimum access needed for a role, rather than granting all users the maximum level of permissions. This alleviates the potential for human errors that could impact data integrity.
Securing Access to AI Systems
As environmental organizations adopt AI systems to automate more of their manual and time-consuming processes, they’ll need to be extremely cautious with unsupervised access.
Strict, granular permission policies should be implemented to prevent the exposure of sensitive or potentially alarming data to the public, or unauthorized model adjustments.
Where possible, proprietary algorithms and climate models should be hosted within insular environments with minimal user access before they are rolled out for larger, commercial use. For third-party AI services, stringent contractual protections must be put in place around data usage and security.
Encrypting Critical Data
Encrypting data so only authorized parties can read it is crucial for organizations that process large amounts of data and influence many other industry-wide decisions.
Data encryption protocols like SSL/TLS provide fundamental protection against cyber attacks, leaks and other unauthorized access attempts. These can be extended to incumbent software and systems needing to correlate and interact with each other across a company’s network.
For maximum security, environmental organizations should encrypt as much data as possible – especially databases, file storage, backups and data in transit:
- Database encryption – Platforms like SQL Server provide built-in encryption for databases at rest. This renders stolen databases useless without the relevant access keys, which can be granted only to authorized users.
- File/folder encryption – Tools like BitLocker can encrypt local file storage or entire drives. Cloud-based, document-sharing services like Dropbox and OneDrive also encrypt uploads by default, while providing real-time visibility.
- Backup encryption – On-site and cloud-based backups create copies of data that could be exposed, if compromised. Providers will ensure backups are secured and regularly run for easy restoration following a breach.
- In-transit encryption – Communications between systems, networks and users should be encrypted to prevent snooping. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) should be used where possible for remote access to shared drives, while all shared internet-based resources should have valid SSL certificates.
As a general rule, any environmental data capable of causing substantial damage, if publicly exposed, should be encrypted where possible. It should only be made available once the organization deems it suitable for public consumption, having verified its legitimacy.
Encrypting Data for AI Processing
Organizations will need to carefully monitor how extensively they use AI and be cautious about deploying it to help with encryption efforts.
While AI and automation tools provide many benefits in how quickly data can be collated and summarized, it’s also important to remember AI can be used maliciously.
Therefore, keeping any highly sensitive or encrypted data contained in a secure environment, before that data is dispensed to any shared or publicly available resource while restricting access, should be the absolute minimum. Over time, the processes of data validation and visualization can be ironed out with the help of AI.
Mitigating AI Security Risks
As AI capabilities have expanded, so have the potential security pitfalls when this technology is applied carelessly. Replacing incumbent programs and tools with large-scale, AI-powered solutions sounds promising in principle, but environmental organizations need to be vigilant about managing the associated risks.
Some top AI security risks include:
- Data poisoning – Competitors or detractors can manipulate training data to potentially skew algorithm results, as well as potentially cause major disruption or contribute to the spread of misinformation. Data, regardless of whether it’s sourced with the help of AI algorithms or not, must be supervised before reaching an open-source destination.
- Algorithmic bias – Without proper diversity in data and testing, AI models can develop harmful biases leading to unfair or dangerous outcomes. Unconscious biases exist in core AI algorithms, therefore rigorous testing should be built into model development to account for any potential deviations.
- Automated exploitation – Unlike humans, AI systems lack intuition and critical thinking capabilities. Clever attackers can exploit this to trick programs in ways that seem completely illogical to people. So, regular training, anomaly detection and human oversight help counter this.
As environmental organizations look to leverage AI, partnering with reputable vendors who prioritize the safety and ethical use of AI will be critical. It’s also essential to build diverse and strategically-minded, internal teams that can decisively find potential blind spots before deploying AI at scale.
Balancing innovation with security and ethics will allow environmental professionals to harness AI for significant benefits, while keeping potential risks and dangers at bay.
For organizations strengthening technology to drive sustainability efforts, and educate the public on the dangers of climate change and rising global temperatures, data security and integrity remain a moral imperative. It’s no secret organizations need to leverage AI sensibly to enhance their data collection efforts. However, this must not come at a risk to the data’s validity and security.
Compromised environmental data calls any and all future decisions into question, but by being strategic and methodical about deploying AI solutions at scale, organizations can keep sensitive environmental data safe from misuse and compromise. As threats evolve, proactive security measures paired with hyper-vigilance will mean ecological efforts can be boosted, rather than hindered.