This is the new privacy

What The Hell Are We Doing?

(Or, why E.T. phoned home…)

There are a lot of ways to tell the story of the Internet. Here’s one: With every advance and every new technology offered to consumers, we dramatically increase the risk we face as individuals, nations, and societies.

We now know that a recent distributed denial of service attack that barred many of us from top sites came at us through the edges of our ever-expanding network; this time it was the internet of things. This shouldn’t come as much surprise. The more we push the envelope, the more we head down the information highway to the danger zone.

We’re making the tools. We’re sharing our information. And we’re convinced we’re having a good time doing it. We can’t wait to buy the next connected device. We’re so obsessed with our connectivity that we’ve stopped looking up from our devices when our kids are talking to us. We take so many pictures of ourselves that phone makers added a camera for that very purpose (even Narcissus thought a front-facing camera would be a bit much). How many people have to walk off a cliff or drive into a telephone pole while texting before we can admit we might have a problem? I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not jotting down these concerns into a paper journal. Like you, I can’t stop sharing even when those I’m sharing with don’t want what I’m sharing. The only ones who do are the hackers.

Ironically, the DDoS effort that prevented us from accessing the Internet slowed the velocity at which we’re all racing to throw our last remnants of privacy into a bottomless pit. At least, for a few minutes, we stopped playing the part of the accomplice in an ongoing plot to obliterate our own privacy. After all, when it comes to our Internet use, privacy loss is not merely collateral damage. It’s not ancillary to the experience, it is the experience. We enthusiastically put more of ourselves out there for the taking every chance we get. Many of us are even addicted to that behavior (writes the guy who hasn’t let an inner-thought go unpublished since the late 90s).

We keep making and using the tools even though we’re reminded of the potential harm almost every week. The hacking of Yahoo Mail was yet another confirmation that we’ve all been affected, probably many times over. Our banks have been attacked. Our places of work have been attacked. Our doctors, our schools … even the most powerful among us regularly get a cold, hard lesson in the risk of being overexposed. Consider that the data from private emails stolen from the most powerful people in the nation is now an absolute centerpiece of an American election. This follows a year in which we saw a massive corporation like Sony nearly destroyed by hackers.

You. Your employer. Your government… But wait, there’s more. Think of the massive military advantage the US has built up over the last two centuries. Almost none of that advantage even loosely applies to the modern battles being waged on a new front that some politicians call The Cyber. If the Super in Super Power is going to be at least partially measured by technological prowess, doesn’t that shrink some of the advantages we’ve maintained for generations? We’re still ahead, but one senses a leveling. We’ve already seen small groups within nation states have a massive geopolitical impact. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to push a tank through an ethernet cable.

The Internet was born as part of the military. And now we need the military to protect us from the Internet. Can they do it? I don’t know, you’d have to ask someone with more technical knowledge (like the teenager who hacked the Pentagon).

And the Internet’s bad hombres sure seem to be advancing their tools a lot faster than we can make ones to stop them. That trend seems destined to accelerate as technology “improves.” Again, the more we push the machine into our lives, the more the machine puts us at risk. John Markoff makes a related point in his NYT piece: As Artificial Intelligence Evolves, So Does Its Criminal Potential.

Social engineering, which refers to the practice of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging information, is widely seen as the weakest link in the computer security chain. Cybercriminals already exploit the best qualities in humans — trust and willingness to help others — to steal and spy. The ability to create artificial intelligence avatars that can fool people online will only make the problem worse.

No wonder E.T. wanted to phone home. He understood that the newer the technology, the greater the risk. And unlike us, he didn’t add to that risk by willingly spilling his personal beans (or in his case, Reese’s Pieces) into the network.

We’re enthusiastically participating in the development of a network that puts us in greater danger with each advancement.

But again, there are a lot of ways to tell the story of the Internet. And this is only one. There’s another equally compelling version that focuses on cat videos.

-Get Dave Pell’s NextDraft. Why choose now to protect your email?

I write NextDraft, a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news.