Governments have been spying on their citizens since the dawn of time. From McCarthyism to PRISM, the scale of surveillance throughout history has varied according to the resources it took to dig up information on people. Back in the 1950s, it cost tens of thousands of dollars to investigate one person, and it might have taken days, weeks, months, or years to find anything. Now, it costs the NSA just 6.5 cents an hour to spy on you.
Of course, the everyday low, low price of surveillance is great for unraveling terrorist plots, but what happens when it costs practically nothing to spy on thousands or millions of people?
These government agencies are going to collect whatever information we put out there, and we’re putting out a lot.
Think about a government or corporate entity having access to your entire Google search history, private emails, instant messages, purchase behavior, or even location data that shows where you’ve been. This is information we readily volunteer when we agree to many “free” services’ terms and conditions, trusting that companies will be responsible stewards of our private data.
The Reality of Internet Security
While we’d like to believe that changing our passwords constantly is enough to protect the vast amount of information we supply on a daily basis, data security is a mathematically impossible myth. You have data; that data is private or public, sensitive or immaterial. The more powerful the data, the more you have to think about how to protect it.
Just as governments can potentially investigate anything they deem a threat due to the low (or nonexistent) cost of advanced surveillance, so can “the bad guys.” Large bureaucracies are no longer the only entities that can possess and utilize such powerful and precise resources. There’s a cyber war underway today, and we’re all in a battle to protect our privacy and integrity.
Guarding Your Digital Self
Ultimately, the responsibility of security on the Internet rests in your hands. You can control how much information you share or supply digitally.
1. Your Stream
Any time your data is online, you have a personal responsibility to exercise due diligence. You can’t necessarily control what your kids do with tech out in the world, but you can keep them secure by teaching them responsible device usage at home. The more powerful the data you possess, the more you have to think about how to protect it.
Always encrypt your data, and if your data is important or extremely sensitive, think very carefully about where you share that information. This idea applies to your digital integrity and even your family’s personal safety. Consider these factors when deciding how much control you need to have over your child’s Facebook posts or your sharing of family information. Unguarded information can, unfortunately, provide anyone the opportunity to see what your child likes and where he or she hangs out. Be proactive in protecting your data. The costs of not doing so could greatly outweigh the inconvenience.
2. Governments and Corporations
If you trust data to make decisions — which you do every time you turn on your phone or swipe a credit card — make sure that data has integrity. Pressure the companies you do business with to protect your data, and realize that once it’s out of your hands, you have to trust that company’s encryption and integrity. Make sure you choose those companies wisely.
Again, the safest data that exists is the data that isn’t connected to the Internet. That’s why some of the most sensitive government and corporate environments have air gaps, meaning they literally aren’t connected to the Internet.
Resetting the Internet
If you don’t trust other entities to handle your data, you may be thinking, “Can’t we erase it and start over?”
The simple answer is no. Some have tried to imagine what an Internet 2.0 would look like, but the Internet is just an agreement between individuals on how they communicate with each other. As long as people are generous with their data, there will be those looking to exploit it.
The chaos of the Internet is part of its beauty, and a lack of central authority has been its strength. Not until very recently have we started to allow corporations and governments to control that here in the U.S., and it’s a slippery slope that will continue to push the Internet into a controlled environment until we say enough is enough.
Daniel Riedel is the CEO of New Context, a systems architecture firm founded to optimize, secure, and scale enterprises. New Context provides systems automation, cloud orchestration, and data assurance through software solutions and consulting. Daniel has experience in engineering, operations, analytics, and product development. Previously, he founded a variety of ventures that worked with companies such as Disney, AT&T, and the National Science Foundation.