The debate about privacy and security has become one of the most important considerations of our time. The rise in digital, the explosion of information and greater access in recent years means that this is a topic that affects everyone. Hacking scandals, data breaches and mass surveillance is the new reality we find ourselves in and despite great efforts by governments and the private sector, the internet is still a digital wild west. But like many others, this trend has a long historical precedent which touches on the ideas of civilization, liberty, private property and military communication.
Although privacy and security often come together, they have different functions and meanings which is necessary to clarify. Privacy is the idea that information or parts of our lives should be privy only to ourselves or to people that we allow access. Whereas security is about our ability to protect and deny access to information, property, objects or ourselves to others.
Some argue that privacy is a human right. But for the better part of our history, privacy as we understand it didn’t really exist – and in many ways it has manifested itself in different ways depending on culture and time. Thousands of years ago where we functioned mostly in small groups, maintaining a private life would have proven to be impossible. Every aspect of your life would be privy to others and you would likely know most things about everybody else. Gossip has been around since we’ve had the ability to speak.
That privacy is a subjective concept can be observed through the fact that tribes in tropical climates like the Amazon rainforests are much more open in their display of their body parts. Women often walk around bare breasted and children run around naked. There are no shuttered bathrooms that distinguish between men and women and in many cases, no private sleeping quarters for each couple, let alone each person. Certainly throughout history, we haven’t had much privacy even in regards to our own bodies.
Privacy as we understand it today evolved as we became more civilized. Even in hotter climates such as in the Middle East, it was understood that people should cover up and with the increased material wealth, people became entitled to their own private quarters in the form of housing. Although for the majority of citizens, they still had to share their rooms with large numbers of family members. Privacy seems naturally intuitive to us now, but it simply wasn’t possible until we developed the means to be more private. And this gives rise to an important question: Why did we suddenly start to value privacy, and to what extent?
Speculatively speaking, there could be a few reasons why we began to value privacy:
Security as we understand it has its roots in both the physical and the ethereal world. In the physical sense, we have always needed to secure what is designated as ours against outside threats. The earliest examples would be protecting our food from being eaten by other animals or securing our defence against other humans. In this sense, there has always been a social and objective agreement about something belonging to one person or another. This ownership could have come through trade, personal effort or a gift and is linked to our ideas of labor, value and money – people have the ability to ‘earn their keep’.
As we developed into larger more complex social systems, the idea of private property became more prominent. We came up with ideas such as land ownership and territory as we developed larger political and economic structures. Different material objects became more valuable with luxury items such as jewels, gold and silver – which acted as stores of value – needing greater security. In a similar sense, people of prominence such as lords and royalty held a form of social value which made them more vulnerable to individuals trying to access them: kidnappers and assassins. Security then was an essential component of ensuring the protection of value, private property and a functioning, hierarchical society.
With modern considerations about our data and information being exposed, you may believe that security of information is a new concept for the digital age. In truth, the concept goes back thousands of years and is most prominently observed through military and political communication.
Long before the telephone, radio or the internet, people relied on physical messengers to communicate with each other. If a general or leader required reinforcements for a battle or wanted to communicate a change in strategy, they would have to either send a person on horseback or devise a way to convey that message through other means such as lighted bonfires or amplifying sound.
Particularly in the case of a written message, the information written could be of vital importance to the people whose eyes it was designed for. If intercepted, there could be disastrous consequences. In other cases, clever generals deliberately created misinformation with the awareness that the communication would not be secure, leading to a favorable outcome as the enemy would misunderstand their strategy.
Knowledge and strategy around information security continued to grow as our communication channels evolved. The invention of telegraphy represented a way for us to communicate over vast distances in a much faster manner, but also had the risk of the message being intercepted. Similarly, radio communications were often intercepted, particularly during World War II, and could be seen as the start of cyberwarfare between national actors. In many ways, you could think of private information as a form of intangible property.
Information security was also historically a concern for private citizens – particularly during the cold war and civil rights era. In post World War II Germany, the East German government deployed a vast network of spies who would monitor and intercept the communications of citizens who they deemed to be a threat to their power. In a similar case in the 1960’s America, the US government deployed a series of programs used to intercept and monitor the communication of civil rights activists and anti-war campaigners. Phone wiretaps and mail interception were used to uncover sensitive information which could be used to identify dissidents.
When thinking about the relationship between privacy and security, it is through information that the relationship becomes more apparent. Although we need security to obscure us and our belongings in our home environment to give us a sense of privacy, it is information about our private affairs that is most at risk of security breaches – and in many cases represents greater value than any physical breach. In the age of information then, both privacy and security have become even more important due to the increased vulnerabilities that more information creates.
We are creating data and information at an accelerating rate – the further time goes on, the faster we are creating data. Everything is moving towards digitization. At the start of the digital revolution, it was primarily computers in the business and government sector that were creating information. With computers now being integrated into our mobile phones, social media and ubiquitous internet access, individuals on a global scale are contributing to the growing ocean of data.
This information explosion has a direct correlation to our reliance on computers. Most aspects of our personal and professional lives involve computers in some way. Even traditionally low tech industries such as farming and retail are becoming digitized through software innovations. In a similar way, many of the machines and infrastructure we rely on such as our power grid, the water supply and even how we interact with government are all digital.
Aspects of our lives that only we or only close ones know about is now available for the world to see – much of which through our own choosing. From the mundane such as a picture of the breakfast we ate to who we grew up with – everything is being recorded and digitized. Like with all technologies, digital information acts as an extension of ourselves. As well as having an identity in the real world – of which may change depending on context – people also now have a digital identity and footprint.
We are also living much more complex lives than we did in the past. Before public education, and especially before access to the internet, most people had simple lives. Nowadays, people have grown in complexity and are able to express themselves uniquely and have different values. This has created a great amount of diversity among individuals as we all find our own ways to navigate a more complex world. In turn, the information about ourselves has increased. Political affiliation, health, career history and interests are a few areas in which we have more individual information.
In the business world, data and information such as trade secrets, blueprints and intellectual property are some of the most valuable assets that a business owns. In some cases such as with software companies, the technological and informational infrastructure such as the code and the database represent all the value of the company. In the political space, highly classified government secrets and communication have all been digitized in the form of documents and with the adoption of email. Now, every aspect of human affairs is recorded in some form of digital data – and it’s too difficult to function without it.
Although privacy and security has always been a concern for us, the rise in digital and the explosion of information has amplified old challenges and created new ones. Here are some of the key reasons why you should care about this development:
The idea of privacy has been adopted across most civilized cultures and is one of the hallmarks of a free society. The origins of privacy and whether it should be a human right is still up for discussion, but we have collectively grown an intuitive sense that privacy is linked to dignity and we all deserve to have it. A common saying in regard to this debate is that if you have nothing to fear then you have nothing to hide, but this often misses the point. Having every detail about your life being observed by other people can erode people’s ability to express themselves and function in diverse ways as they become more prone to conformism. This can lead to a loss in new ideas and abuses in power.
As every detail of our lives becomes digitized, owned and profited from by technology companies, governments are getting in on the act too – the difference being that their motivation may not be profit but power and control, particularly in the case of authoritarian governments. At a targeted level, this can lead to abuses in power such as blackmailing political opponents by preeing into their personal lives or internet usage. At a mass level, this can lead to the reeducation and targeting of people who are searching for information the government finds sensitive or fits a particular profile of people who they deem to be a threat.
The least worst case, and one that is already occurring, is the self-censorship of people who are aware that everything they say and post is being recorded. The pictures you post and the tweets you send can all come back to haunt you even years down the line. That’s just the public record too – many people are also conscious about what they type into Google knowing that a profile is being shaped every time they search for something new. In the worst case, this can lead to what is known as thought policing and eventually precrime in which your intent can be misconstrued by showing activity that is deemed suspicious.
When it comes to security, the main consideration is what is known as cybercrime. As the name implies, these crimes occur in the digital space which typically involves some form of hacking. The crimes can take the form of corporate espionage, cyberterrorism, scams, data leaks, hacktivism and extortion. Criminals use a variety of means to achieve this, such as viruses and brute force attacks.
Corporate espionage – Most corporations and even small businesses have trade secrets they rely on to compete. Some companies also rely on the intellectual property of their software code and their data to give them a competitive advantage. These digitized assets provide lucrative opportunities for competitive entities (be they state or other businesses) and also individuals who want to extort companies for profit.
Cyberterrorism – The effect of a few individuals and their capacity to cause harm through terrorism is well understood. But the scale of cyberterrorism can be more deadly than any physical attack. As every aspect of our society is connected in some way to the internet, our electricity grids, water supplies and even air traffic systems are all vulnerable to attack. This can lead to disastrous real world consequences such as the loss of life and the disruption of the economy – all achieved through a laptop in a coffee shop.
Scams – Social engineering is the concept of manipulating someone to diverge important information, value or access. It is commonly known as a confidence trick but has become prevalent on the internet. Emails pretending to be friends and websites offering you rewards are a few of the ways these scams play out on the internet. Internet scams are costing people lots of money and ruining lives – particularly those who are most vulnerable such as the elderly.
Data leaks – Data breaches seem to be growing in prevalence in recent times, even affecting major corporations. They occur for many reasons such as through hacktivism where an ex-employee wants revenge or a competitive entity seeking to cause harm. These scandals lead to a loss in trust which can affect future business as people become less inclined to deal with a company that lacks security.
What’s troubling about cybercrime is both the lower barrier to entry and the ability for the crime to scale. Crime has gone digital, and benefits from the same mechanisms that help spread ideas and grow new businesses.
Popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, this term describes how corporates are working together and profiting from the data they collect about us. Information compiled from Google in the form of search histories and personality graphs from social media sites such as Facebook are all being aggregated to create a profile about us which is being brokered off and used for advertising purposes.
With our lives being intrinsically intertwined with technology – our devices tracking our movements and the internet tracking our interests and search history – corporations may actually know more about us than we do ourselves. They know who we associate with, what our fears are, what we’re thinking and most importantly, what we may buy next. This poses a problem in the sense that 1) others are profiting from our personal data without compensating us and 2) humans are becoming even more commoditized into economic units.
Although this raises some challenges, there are benefits to the increased ubiquity and aggregation of data. A corporation knowing exactly what you need to buy may not be a bad thing if it improves your quality of life which we will explore in the next part.
Stefan Soellner is an expert in scaling for companies, experienced consultant for business model and product innovation, and coach in the field of innovation management.