Recent hacks have exposed just how vulnerable everyone’s personal data is. New technologies could change the very basis of how companies store our information

After Ashley Madison: How to regain control of your online data

Not so secret anymore (Image: Bobby Yip/Reuters/Corbis)

ONLINE privacy as you know it died last week. But the reaction to the release of Ashley Madison’s dossier of more than 30 million people seeking affairs was one of muted resignation. “Assume everything you do and say will be made public,” one commentator declared. Another bemoaned “the impossibility of perfect privacy“. The received wisdom is clear: our data will never be safe.

This collective shrug is the result of security fatigue, says privacy researcher Helen Nissenbaum of New York University. The companies who store our data have all the power, but the responsibility for protecting it has been placed on individuals. And we’re ill-equipped for the job. If you were using the Ashley Madison site, the strongest password in the world wouldn’t have kept your details off the growing number of searchable databases now being scoured by suspicious partners and those looking for dirt.

And it’s not just members of illicit websites who need to worry. “All of us are shedding data with no clue as to how it is being used, abused, protected – or not,” says Nissenbaum. We are simply meant to have faith that the trade-off of our data for what the company offers us is worthwhile, she says.

“All of us are shedding data with no clue as to how it is being used, abused or protected”

It is certainly worthwhile for the companies. Sliced and diced and sold to third parties, data can be a bounteous cash cow. What you get out of the deal is less clear. One thing we do know is that the model of trusting someone else to hold your data has failed.

Some researchers think you should revoke some of that trust. “I can’t believe people put their real names, email addresses and credit card details on to a website like that,” says Krzysztof Szczypiorski, a security researcher at the Warsaw University of Technology in Poland. He thinks the Ashley Madison hack will be a watershed moment for people’s understanding of just how exposed their data is. He says people will start to avail themselves of smarter ways of disguising illicit behaviour. Email accounts under a different name, and prepaid credit cards that can be loaded anonymously, for example, “would have saved a lot of people’s marriages”, he says.

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