Take the power back (Image: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
PRIVACY is dead. So opined many last week, after hackers leaked personal information about some 35 million users of Ashley Madison, a website designed to facilitate extra-marital affairs. Humiliation on a massive scale followed. The fallout – including lawsuits, extortion attempts and, reportedly, suicides – is unlike that of any previous hack.
Don’t be distracted by whatever opinions you may have about the morality of the site and its users. The real point is that ordinary people have now become targets of the extreme violations of privacy, fuelled by a toxic mix of prurience and schadenfreude – and on unprecedented scales.
How did we get here? Data has become currency: wefrom to , while accepting promises of personalisation and assurances of security from those to whom we entrust it.
That trust is misplaced. Silicon Valley is built on data trading, and its products reflect that. Webmail isn’t encrypted; that would stop lucrative ads. Apps don’t tell us what they’re doing. Ad-trackers stalk you as you browse. And instead of real security, we are exhorted to strengthen our passwords – which is unintuitive and largely futile.
This isn’t how things have to be. Researchers are testing systems that would return control over our data to us (see ““). Hacking would still be a risk, but there would be fewer enticing targets. Such systems are complex, but so are, say, spam-filtering and online shopping. Given a will to use them, we would find a way.
Does that will exist? Not among the social media titans. Start-ups focused on privacy haven’t caught on so far. Perhaps it is more likely to come from a grass-roots effort. That can be effective: ad-blocking extensions for web browsers, built by volunteers, are now. But if the effort doesn’t start soon, vested interests may become too deeply entrenched to overturn. And that really might kill off privacy for good.
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