PRISM – Your security, your privacy

Just a month ago, the digital world was informed on PRISM, the US-government electronic spying initiative. The program, which we explained with an eye on privacy, allows governments to access sensitive data living on servers for the biggest tech giants, Apple, Microsoft, Google and many more.

Despite the NSA confirming the existence of such program upfront, major players initially denied or tried to marginalise their involvement.

Last week Microsoft released a statement saying that it was under legal obligation to allow the NSA to circumvent its encryption. Days later, dozens of technology companies are demanding spying openness, essentially allowing them to report on the nature and scope of the data obtained by government agencies.

This will undeniably trigger a number of discussions, and possibly legislative changes. However this “limited” privacy is also quite simply the cost of this astonishing convenience offered by cloud and technologies more generally.

Scope of your privacy online

What must be understood is that all communications today are digital, or leave a digital footprint. They are traceable. The only notable exception being face-to-face discussions.

  • Mobile and landline phone calls are logged for billing
  • ISPs track Internet traffic on their network, so do utility companies with electricity/gas consumption
  • Your smartphone knows where you are, so do apps you run
  • Every email you ever sent was processed by one or many servers
  • Your latest Skype or Facetime chat was also logged
  • Social networks record your life events with commentaries, photos and videos
  • Online bank transactions are entered and processed electronically, same as international funds transfer and other stock exchange transactions

This means that in some way, your every moves are leaving some trace somewhere.

This however doesn’t change how emails have changed businesses. Mobiles have changed communications, and the Internet has changed the world.

Cloud-based privacy

The “cloud”, with all its marketing greatness is no different. Perhaps even a little worse since we tend to inherently trust software running in the cloud. Perhaps only because many of us don’t quite grasp the “reach” of the cloud.

Accounting software XERO holds sensitive financial information, including bank accounts, credit cards transactions and tax details for over 80,000 individuals and businesses.

Same goes for emails. Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google handle your emails. All of it. They might not read each and every one individually, but they could if needed.

In essence when it comes to the Cloud, we are allowing for our sensitive data to be stored in a single location, with a single organisation to have access to it all. This doesn’t change the fact however, that these organisations provide great services, and many for free.

increased concern about security and privacy onlineSecurity & privacy
Results from a 2012 study showed concerns, and trust. Edelman, 2012.

Your data to good use

While today’s society generally accepts this somewhat “limited” privacy, the significant differences with PRISM is how it collates all sources and pre-emptively stores the information.

PRISM is not only about closing off unsolved crimes or terrorist acts, but tracking all suspects and perhaps the ability to turn anyone into a suspect, should they choose to.

Your privacy, moving forward

Given the role of technologies in our lives today, and granted “moving forward” will include, for a foreseeable future, a significant number of technologies used daily (if not many times a day), your privacy is not safe. At the very best it will be limited.

claiming back your security and privacy onlineOutback Shack
No services available, except perhaps for a connection to the NBN.

Is this sufficient grounds for closing all social and email accounts, getting off the Internet, or turning away every piece of electronics? Perhaps buy a campervan or a shack somewhere in the outback, live secluded and cut yourself off the system? Of course not!

Remember that technology began changing our lives during the industrial revolution, over 200 years ago. The only thing that has changed in the last few decades is the computerisation of almost everything, which has sped up the world as we know it.

The cloud has dropped most boundaries for privacy. The choice is therefore simple, be scared and potentially miss out, or understand enough to somewhat know what you are doing, and enjoy. The lack of privacy is the cost of convenience.

In 2012, an Edelman study on privacy found that 90% of us are concerned about data security and online privacy and 70% are more concerned than they were 5 years ago. On average, 67% would switch social media if their information were accessed without permission. In June 2013, Facebook admitted a bug exposed user privacy, affecting 6M accounts. 67% of 1 billion users, is 670 million. Have you heard of 670 million users quitting Facebook recently?

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Written by

Managing Director of EmpireOne Group in Sydney, Sebastien has made a life of understanding both sides of the fence. Born in Canada and educated as a self-started business software engineer, not a single day passes without finding Seb tweaking a process, system or piece of code.