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Security in the digital age: How safe do you feel?

Tue 7 Jul 2020 | Chad Manian

Covid-19 tracking is a reminder that being protected online is not just about having the most up-to-date firewall or security credentials

User data, secure server, firewall safety, online password protection, cybersecurity, ransomware, GDPR, cyberattacks, phishing, data privacy, license agreement…these are all words that have come to drive us crazy.

The theme of the online climate is security. Companies, governments, customers and people spend much time, money and effort trying to protect themselves online. But what exactly are we protecting? Our identities, our records, our personal data, social media posts, privacy or is it something more?

From the valley to the world

To understand this, we first need to examine the origin of data security. It all began back in the late 90s during the dotcom bubble. Silicon Valley, also known as ‘the valley’, was at its pinnacle. It became an epicentre, attracting talented start-ups and innovators looking to build the next big thing. Technology developed and this was the time of e-commerce – fast-growing online businesses that inspired a generation of social misfits.

This led to the development of e-business, which was nothing more than a person with a mobile phone and a website running a business. Soon, the IT guy with a website gave way to a non-IT person with a smartphone or tablet.

This all happened at the same time military surveillance technology was reaching its peak, and some of the most successful innovations came from here.

One such story is the case of DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which found a way to link computers through telephone lines within a small local area network (LAN). This eventually led to more computer and telephone networks which were collectively called ‘Ethernet’. Over time, this military network was commercialised and open to the public. This was referred to by household users by its new common term, ‘internet’, which is now taken for granted.

This idea developed so rapidly and successfully that phone wires would be replaced by something better – cables, then fibre optics and eventually satellites. The original plan to establish the internet would create a billion-dollar telecom sector which would give governments the ability to monitor communications through airwaves. Eventually, companies wanted in on the action and now anyone with a device and the knowledge can benefit.

Big data, bigger risks

Unfortunately, start-ups which became big tech firms began integrating more advanced methods of gathering customer data and mapping human behaviour. As digitisation progressed, privacy began to take a back seat. Big data, user profiling, artificial intelligence (AI) and the trading of people’s personal data became a new business in itself.

By 2004, personal data became the new currency and an organised form of buying and selling of online customer data called ‘information brokerage’ became popular. This trend became a pattern, and as long as nobody complained, privacy became the cost of being online.

This increase in online information brokerage became a lifestyle for a whole new generation of businesses and internet users that knew nothing but the convenience of living, working, and interacting online. With so much of life now being online, people grew more and more concerned about their safety.

Psychologists specialising in technology found that privacy and safety concerns were observed to be higher among the older generations, who knew of a time before technology, when people had something called ‘privacy’. On the other hand, millennials were found to be less inclined towards privacy issues.

People don’t object to having their details taken or being used on social media, but they do object when it’s done without their knowledge or consent.

Laws have been passed, like GDPR, e-commerce regulations etc. hoping to remedy this. Unfortunately, laws can only exist in response to new situations, and as the old saying goes. Regulators are often not technocrats or experts in the fields they legislate – they often fail to understand the complex reality of privacy violations in a world where it’s much easier to collect, store, analyse, use and sell people’s personal data.

‘Track & trace’: data protection during the pandemic

People will always be unsafe as long as there is more money invested in data collection and monitoring than there is in data protection. To change a bad situation, you must first ‘want’ a solution and be willing to spend money on it.

Most users consume data and generate data every day, from waking up in the morning until going to bed at night. Users also readily give away their information all too easily, sometimes unknowingly, but often enough, willingly, like when starting a social media account.

Most recently, following Covid-19, many countries have instituted measures to capture and use people’s personal data under the cloak of health and safety.

Phone companies, tech giants and social media firms have all been made to hand over user data and add ‘trackers’ to monitor individuals. The recent pandemic has opened a whole new dimension of debates into personal freedom and privacy vs public health. The question is; can we sacrifice our data in the name of health? If so, how far can we go until we draw the line?

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic has allowed a new set of intrusions of privacy to become the norm. A number of countries have followed the Chinese model of forcing track and trace using public health as a reason: what no one has done however, is to ask the public what they think. Tech firms and authorities seem to have come to take informed consent for granted.

Information is key

For the most part, being protected online is not down to having the most updated firewall or complicated username with impossible passwords. In the end, it’s about reading the fine print before saying ‘yes’ and more precisely – knowing what you say yes to.

Complete safety is elusive and as obtainable as the Holy Grail and can only exist if a user decides not to enter the digital world or limit one’s involvement to what is essential and says ‘no’ to the rest. This, however, would be impossible for most. As tech psychologists say, the fear of being left behind and not participating in a world where all your friends are connected is the greater threat to an online user’s self-identity.

There are no simple answers, but more questions that need to be asked since progress is not about the answer alone, but about being willing to ask more complicated questions. The most important question is ‘how safe do you feel?’

Experts featured:

Chad Manian

Lecturer and Interdisciplinary Researcher at Berlin School of Business and Innovation (BSBI)
Berlin School of Business and Innovation

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