Privacy Violations: Pollution of the Digital Revolution

Today’s Dropbox is a small but shining invention of our Digital Revolution. Technology startups are now designed to grow, and done successfully can be enormously profitable. Great software is empowering people by giving them efficient control over their social lives, financial plans, travel needs and health care in ways never before possible.

But the Digital Revolution is also introducing a new hazard with a wild and unpredictable impact: privacy violations.

The first drop box was invented by Robert Kay in 1760. It increased the speed and efficiency of fabric weaving and helped usher in the Industrial Revolution. For seventy years, advances in mechanics, chemistry and urbanization resulted in both unprecedented improvements to living standards and the foundation of the modern capitalist economy.

The swift change brought with it unintended consequences. Coal-burning factories choked citizens and darkened the sky with a mix of smoke and fog. In London, fatal outbreaks of Cholera resulted from draining raw sewage directly into the Thames. In Cleveland, oil refineries spilled crude into the Cuyahoga River causing it to catch fire three times in 1800s.

During the Industrial Revolution people paid the price of progress with the destruction of the environment. Today, we pay with our privacy.

The sources of privacy violations are as various as those of pollution and affect organizations of all sizes. Large companies with sophisticated security practices suffer from zero day exploits. Medium-size companies are unable to crawl above the Security Poverty Line. Startups lack both the time and capital necessary to focus on security when building for growth is job number one.

In 2011, Sony revealed that 77 million user accounts including names, addresses, email addresses, birthdates, passwords, logins, security questions and possibly credit cards were obtained by an “illegal and unauthorized person.” The number of people affected is particularly alarming given the new research that indicates one in four people who receive data breach letters become fraud victims.

Last year, a weak password and an over-privileged administrative account led to the exposure of 780,000 patient files entrusted to the Utah Department of Technology Services. It is as though a cloud of carcinogenic particulates now hangs over the state. People exposed to the violation wait with no control over their prognosis. Will the exposure lead to a shocking public revelation of their medical afflictions? Perhaps they’ll only suffer the indignity of identity theft. Maybe both.

Whatsapp, one of today’s most popular messaging clients on the market has been found to be in current violationt Dutch and Canadian privacy laws. The reason? It requires its users to share their contact information and that of their friends which is stored on the company’s servers. This presents the risk of a data breach affecting people who don’t even use the product. More people might be alarmed if they were aware of the company’s colorful history of security concerns.

Many changes must be made to slow the progression of this modern menace. Programing languages, platforms and security layers must be implemented to sustainably protect user data. Everyone from startup accelerators to venture capital partners must incentivize companies to make security and user privacy a vital aspect of product development.

While we all benefit from the great advances of the Digital Revolution, it is your unique privacy that is at risk from the potential consequences of this progress. You must be thoughtful of not only what you share but the potential consequences of its unexpected exposure.

In the summer of 1858, the Great Stink made the Thames so abhorrent that British citizenry finally drew the line on pollution. I ask you, what will be the Great Stink of the Digital Revolution? A major hack of Facebook seems like a reasonable possibility. But perhaps it won’t be so obvious or sudden. Whatever it is, take a deep breath while the air is still clear.

Rob Banagale is Co-Founder of Gliph: an identity platform designed to let you communicate and transact securely and privately. Use Gliph on the web or download the native app from the App Store and on Google Play.

Photo credits: gorillaradio, ellenm1, and marinephotobank.