Can Consumers' Online Data Be Protected?
This essay appeared as half of a point/counterpoint with Priscilla Regan, in a CQ Researcher report on Privacy and the Internet.
Everything online is hackable. This is true for Equifax’s data and the federal Office of Personal Management’s data, which was hacked in 2015. If information is on a computer connected to the internet, it is vulnerable.
But just because everything is hackable doesn’t mean everything will be hacked. The difference between the two is complex, and filled with defensive technologies, security best practices, consumer awareness, the motivation and skill of the hacker and the desirability of the data. The risks will be different if an attacker is a criminal who just wants credit-card details — and doesn’t care where he gets them from — or the Chinese military looking for specific data from a specific place.
The proper question isn’t whether it’s possible to protect consumer data, but whether a particular site protects our data well enough for the benefits provided by that site. And here, again, there are complications.
In most cases, it’s impossible for consumers to make informed decisions about whether their data are protected. We have no idea what sorts of security measures Google uses to protect our highly intimate Web search data or our personal emails. We have no idea what sorts of security measures Facebook uses to protect our posts and conversations.
We have a feeling that these big companies do better than smaller ones. But we’re also surprised when a lone individual publishes personal data hacked from the infidelity site AshleyMadison.com, or when the North Korean government does the same with personal information in Sony’s network.
Think about all the companies collecting personal data about you — the websites you visit, your smartphone and its apps, your internet-connected car — and how little you know about their security practices. Even worse, credit bureaus and data brokers like Equifax collect your personal information without your knowledge or consent.
So while it might be possible for companies to do a better job protecting our data, you as a consumer are in no position to demand such protection.
Government policy is the missing ingredient. We need standards and a method for enforcement. We need liabilities and the ability to sue companies that poorly secure our data. The biggest reason companies don’t protect our data online is that it’s cheaper not to. Government policy is how we change that.