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Data Privacy and Security

The end of certainty: How Ashley Madison changed it all

A long time ago, I went through a vetting process for some work with the UK government. Understandably nervous, I asked a colleague what it was all about. “Just be honest,” he said to me. “They’re looking for ways that people can get to you. If you have no secrets, you have nothing to worry about."

I took this at face value and all went well. But many people have things they would rather keep to themselves. For better, or worse. 

At the same time, the internet. A capability never before experienced by humanity, the World Wide Web is still so new that we continue to learn the rules and behaviours associated with it. Even as we use the internet, we start to understand it. And, sometimes, we become unstuck.

Love affairs are possibly one of the oldest of our behaviours, their very nature filled with contradictions and a spectrum of moral judgements. Of all the people having an affair, many more might consider it. Whatever the rights and wrongs, rare would be the relationship that continued, start to finish, with absolute certainty, or without a glance elsewhere. 

At the same time, the internet. A complex network of computer servers and storage devices, our every message and preference logged and stored for future reference. Even as we click on articles or comment on social media, we create an electronic trail for later analysis. We are yet to understand fully the potential opportunities for, or the dangers of, this accumulation of data.

A couple of years ago Autonomy founder Mike Lynch remarked, “In an age of perfect information… we're going to have to deal with fundamental 

human trait, hypocrisy.” That is, data transparency goes directly against human behaviours that rely on keeping secrets.

And then, Ashley Madison. The consequences are already starting to unfold — the first lawyers have been instructed, the first big names knocked off their pedestals. We already have conspiracists suggesting government involvement (and perhaps they are right). 

While it is nowhere near the same scale as September 11, 2001 in terms of horror or tragedy, it bears similar traits. And there will be a very human cost. No doubt governments will capitalise on the situation to push their own cyber-agendas forward, in the name of citizen protection. 

“How could people be that dumb,” some have written. But the fact is they were that dumb. They were complacent, they were ignorant. All that effort by security professionals over the years, all that rhetoric about personal privacy was written off as industry paranoia, or as a ploy to sell more products.

Neither is it over. Technology has not stopped evolving but our frameworks and framing mechanisms are falling ever further behind. Consider the fitness device being used in court as evidence, or the increasing use of facial recognition. Soon it will be impossible to deny a visit to a certain bar, or indeed say, “I was at home all the time.”

People might not be quite so dumb again. Rather, they will live their lives in a state of heightened fear, as to the consequences of their online actions. All that certainty, that complacency, is gone for ever.

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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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