Privacy vs Security in an Open-Source World

by Crystal on July 22, 2009

The rise of social media has given rise to heated Unlocking Dreamsdebates about security and privacy online.   With open access to all kinds of information about us, the thinking goes that it becomes easier for the crooks among us to steal our identity and use it for whatever nefarious purposes they choose.  The news is full of reports of horror stories (nothing new there) but the message seems to be that no sooner does security tighten on one corner of the net, than another loophole opens and we become exposed again.

With no single agency responsible for our security in the cyber universe, it comes back to each of us being responsible for maintaining the safety of our own information.  Governments argue that they can’t do the job, because they’re hamstrung by the limitations placed on their ability to infringe on our private domains.  Security and Privacy are placed at opposite ends of the spectrum, and we’re told we can’t have it both ways.

There’s a whole other argument there that I’m not going to touch just now.  But presuming that distinction is correct, we’re left with the question: where, in a connected world, does privacy fit in?

If you choose to place your conflicted relationship status or the fact you’re looking for another job on a social network site, do you then have the right to complain when someone like your boss or significant other finds it and takes issue with it?

It seems many people think you do.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people fail to register the fact that something posted on the internet is PUBLIC.  That means access is not controlled.  If you want controlled access, you have to give up some of the convenience of being able to grab it from anywhere, and fall back on things like hosted applications instead.  Or for even tighter access control, keep it securely stored on your own computer (and don’t run file sharing services).  Password protect it.  The more control you want over that information, the more gates you put up between it and the world, and the more keys you need to carry around to get at it yourself.

Sure it’s inconvenient, but that’s the way it is, right?

Or is it?

It occurs to me that even if that’s how things are now, we are slowly and steadily moving to a whole new world.  Lives, diaries, thoughts and networks are all open connections.  The veil of secrecy is getting thinner and thinner every year.  Yes that poses risks for security, but the cure may not necessarily be putting those gates and locks back in place.

What if we went the other way?

Put it this way: how many people do you think could walk into a shop and present a credit card in the name of Oprah Winfrey?  I’d guess exactly one.  There’s virtually no chance you’re going to find a shop assistant who doesn’t know what face is meant to go with that name.  If yours isn’t it, you’re not going to even try.

That kind of recognition isn’t because Oprah is a very private person.  It’s because she’s sacrificed that privacy and shared herself with the world.  We all know her, and even if you don’t love her, you’re still pretty likely to recognise her.

Admittedly, there’s not many of us are likely to attain the status that Oprah has, but the lesson remains – there’s a kind of security in going the opposite direction to locking your details down.

If you think about it, most of our concerns about privacy come from two things: worrying about what other people will do with the information (see above), and our fears of what other people will think of us – how they’ll judge us if our private foibles and weaknesses are known.  It’s a bit like being scared to step on the dance floor because you’re not an expert dancer – except everyone else on the floor is too busy worrying about what you’ll think of their steps to even notice yours.  We rush around, heads down, trying not to see who’s looking at us, deathly afraid someone might be.

What happens if we look up, look around, and see everyone else with their heads down like ours was? What if we’re in such a big crowd that there’s a good chance nobody is looking?

Please don’t get me wrong – right now security issues can and do exist, but I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to apply the old lock and key patch over the cyber-world and make it go away.  What if the only real cure is for us to choose between giving up connectivity to get security back, or giving up privacy and embracing connectivity?

I don’t think the world is quite ready to give up the need for privacy yet, but I do think we’re moving steadily and inexorably towards a world where it’s seen as an outdated concept.  Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this decade, but it’s coming.  And when it does, I suspect we’ll find that the security breaches we’ve all worried about are no longer possible.

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