The Web Is A Private Place

There is a giant gap in the market for privacy that’s waiting to be filled.

Recent news of Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos being circulated online have created reams of news print and a frenzy on social media.  It’s also led to more than a few searches for the said photos. The events have triggered an FBI an investigation into identity of the person(s) involved in the leak, while tech-giant Apple has been forced into swift action by announcing additional safety features to iCloud in a bid to protect users’ privacy. But while social commentators have debated on whether media outlets should publicize the content from such leaks, these debates fail to an address an even more pressing concern.

Over the past decade a number of studies have delved into the changing nature of human interaction online, as well as the benefits (and risks) of leading increasingly digital lives. A key finding – as we become increasingly reliant on cloud-based systems to store all of our data, we’re unwittingly opening up our personal lives to corporations in ways that would have seemed unimaginable before the advent of the Internet. No doubt the revelations of the past week will prompt a number of people to re-evaluate the kind of content they’re willing to upload on to the Cloud. But the fallout of these events throws light on increasingly important question – Is technology compatible with privacy?

In the past few years, we seen mounting evidence that seems to indicate that ‘technology’ and ‘privacy’ make for poor bedfellows. Whether it’s Facebook’s attempts to own users’ data, ecommerce websites that seem to follow you wherever you go online, or the increasingly pervasive Google Now which attempts to link our online identities with real-world behaviour. Today’s companies (and governments) run massive data-mining operations that cover everything from your personal communications to location-based monitoring that track your movements in real-time.

But why should private details that are stored on our personal devices be any different from those that are stored in our personal journals? Should there be a distinction between digital information and printed information? Governments in the US, UK and other countries are seeking to make this distinction because they recognize it vastly increases their powers of investigation. Companies hope to utilize this same distinction, because it makes it easier for them to ‘tailor their services to customer needs’. But should we trust companies (or governments) who store our personal data if they make it difficult for consumers to understand where they draw the line between private and public information?

In a July interview with the Guardian, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden offers some insightful responses to these questions. According to Mr. Snowden, “technology can enable greater privacy, but not if we sleepwalk into new applications of it without considering the implications of these technologies.” As cloud computing and the Internet of Things become de facto standards for storing and transmitting data, it’s becoming more important to develop solutions that allow users to exchange information freely—while being able to control the kind of information they want to make public. People want to have greater control over their private data, but they also want access to services that are user friendly, accessible from anywhere, and inexpensive.  Which begs the question – Is there a market for privacy?

As consumers, many of us (including this writer) have shown a startling willingness to buy cellphones that are the equivalent of networked microphones that we carry around in our pockets—voluntarily. Would we be willing to pay a small premium if we could be guaranteed that the services and devices that store our information were encrypted and safe? Could these services be easy to understand, so that they lay-users wouldn’t need an exceeding amount of technical literacy to operate them?

Some might think that we’ve gone too far down this road. That Google, Apple, Facebook, and even Dropbox have too much to gain from the current state of affairs. Today a whole new generation consumers have access to high-quality content that would have taken a lifetime (and a small fortune) to accumulate. Today, companies like SpiderOak (an alternative to Dropbox) are developing “zero knowledge systems” that allow service providers to host and process data of behalf of customers, without actually knowing what that content is. In 2013, SpiderOak began development of Crypton, an open source project that allows developers to easily add encryption security to mobile applications.

Will a revolution in ‘data privacy’ kick-start new innovations for companies and users that rely on cloud based technologies? Will it open up new avenues for revenue while allowing users to protect their data? The word is still out, but this could possibly be the start of the next big thing.

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