Life in the Digital Age

We all know that planes crash on occasion, but we fly anyway. It’s just one of those risks we take while enjoying the affordances of modern life. Most people view the internet and digital data in a similar way — hacking and other privacy concerns are the inevitable risks of living in the digital age. But I think car wrecks make a much better analogy. Sure they are inevitable, but as a driver there are proactive steps you can take to avoid wrecks and minimize damage when they do happen.

To presume that any digital data is safe is foolish. You can take steps to make data more safe, but absolute digital security is a myth.

Take for example popular online backup providers like Dropbox. They do encrypt your data, but it was revealed earlier this year that certain employees have access to your data. No matter how strict the data access policies, a Google employee spying on user emails should remind us that humans will be humans.

After the Dropbox revelation, many security conscious users started using client-side encryption to further secure the data they back up. That’s a great step in the right direction, but ultimately it’s still not 100% secure. AES-256 bit encryption is presumed safe today, but it will likely be years — not decades — before today’s most sophisticated encryption is easily hacked. I bet there are at least a few enterprising hackers and/or governments scouring the internet for publicly available encrypted files. When those files are eventually cracked, they will be a treasure trove for data mining.

This is all starting to sound a bit tin foil hat, but it’s already happening and will happen more and more as data storage and processing continues to get cheaper, faster, and more efficient. The NSA is currently building a $1.5 billion dollar data center to “gather and process information from different branches of the U.S. intelligence operations.” You may or may not feel safe knowing the NSA is storing and processing some of your personal data and online actions, but that data center will undoubtedly become a digital battle ground with hackers and rogue governments doing everything they can to penetrate its digital defenses.

The truth is, most of what we do online everyday would be quite boring to someone with nefarious intent, but data analysis tools are incredibly sophisticated and grow more capable every day. The proverbial needle in the haystack is orders of magnitude easier to find digitally. Passwords, social security numbers, bank account numbers, and other sensitive data can and will be extracted from the mountains of boring data.

This sort of thing has always been a concern for the security conscious, but the stakes have been raised further by our fancy new portable computers. Smartphones gather a staggering amount of personal data and that data is significantly less secure than most people presume. It’s still unclear exactly what data was actually logged by Carrier IQ, but the fact that it could log just about anything — from location data to every single keystroke — should be a digital security wake up call. If you want an even more detailed and scary wake up call, read this: WikiLeaks: The Spy Files.

Because of all this, I’ve decided to replace my iPhone with a “dumb phone” and keep all digital devices off the internet.

Yeah, right! Unless you’re actively engaged in criminal activity, completely avoiding digital devices and the internet is overkill. What I have done — and will continue to do with growing vigilance — is presume that anything I do on or with a digital device could be made public or used against me. Everything I type. Every photo I take. Everywhere I go. Everything. I live a relatively simple life, so thinking along those lines really doesn’t change much. I avoid visiting certain websites and storing certain things digitally, but overall I live a fairly normal digital life.

There is, however, one thing that has been haunting me. My wife and I have taken digital photos of our naked children. It’s really sad that just saying that sounds creepy, even scandalous, but that’s the reality of the world we live in. Sexual deviance has always been a problem, but photography and now digital photography and the internet has made the exploitation of children easier and more prevalent. The sad thing is, innocent photos taken by family members could end up being traded online as child porn. I’d be devastated to learn that a photo of my child was used in that way.

What’s even more alarming is that most of my photos are taken with an iPhone, which means they have GPS data embedded. I’ve always been leery of the cost and security implications of backing up photos online, so short of my computer having been hacked none of those photos have ever been exposed online. But now with iCloud and other automatic backup solutions, any photo I take is uploaded almost instantly. After thinking more about digital security over the past 24 hours, I went through my iPhoto library this morning and deleted every nude photo. Thankfully, my wife and I have apparently been quite careful in our photo composition — I only had to delete a few blurry bath time shots we won’t miss.

You may or may not decide to take similar action, but it’s important to understand the pitfalls of life in the digital age.