As we close out 2019, we at Security Boulevard wanted to highlight the five most popular articles of the year. Following is the fifth in our weeklong series of the Best of 2019.
Privacy. We all know what it is, but in today’s fully connected society can anyone actually have it?
For many years, it seemed the answer was no. We didn’t care about privacy. We were so enamored with Web 2.0, the growth of smartphones, GPS satnav, instant updates from our friends and the like that we seemed to not care about privacy. But while industry professionals argued the company was collecting too much private information, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg understood the vast majority of Facebook users were not as concerned. He said in a 2011 Charlie Rose interview, “So the question isn’t what do we want to know about people. It’s what do people want to tell about themselves?”
In the past, it would be perfectly normal for a private company to collect personal, sensitive data in exchange for free services. Further, privacy advocates were almost criticized for being alarmist and unrealistic. Reflecting this position, Scott McNealy, then-CEO of Sun Microsystems, infamously said at the turn of the millennium, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
And for another decade or two, we did. Privacy concerns were debated; however, serious action on the part of corporations and governments seemed moot. Ten years ago, the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council had the only meaningful data security standard, ostensibly imposed by payment card issuers against processors and users to avoid fraud.
Our attitudes have shifted since then. Expecting data privacy is now seen by society as perfectly normal. We are thinking about digital privacy like we did about personal privacy in the ’60s, before the era of hand-held computers.
So, what happened? Why does society now expect digital privacy? Especially in the U.S., where privacy under the law is not so much a fundamental right as a tort? There are a number of factors, of course. But let’s consider three: a data breach that gained national attention, an international elevation of privacy rights and growing frustration with lax privacy regulations.
Our shift in the U.S. toward expecting more privacy started accelerating in December 2013 when Target experienced a headline-gathering data breach. The termination of the then-CEO and the subsequent following-year staggering operating loss, allegedly due to customer dissatisfaction and reputation erosion from this incident, got the boardroom’s attention. Now, data privacy and security are chief strategic concerns.
On the international stage, the European Union started experimenting with data privacy legislation in 1995. Directive 95/46/EC required national data protection authorities to explore data protection certification. This resulted in an opinion issued in 2011 which, through a series of opinions and other actions, resulted in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entering force in 2016. This timeline is well-documented on the European Data Protection Supervisor’s website.
It wasn’t until 2018, however, when we noticed GDPR’s fundamental privacy changes. Starting then, websites that collected personal data had to notify visitors and ask for permission first. Notice the pop-ups everywhere asking for permission to store cookies? That’s a byproduct of the GDPR.
What happened after that? Within a few short years, many local governments in the U.S. became more and more frustrated with the lack of privacy progress at the national level. GDPR was front and center, with several lawsuits filed against high-profile companies that allegedly failed to comply.
As the GDPR demonstrated the possible outcomes of serious privacy regulation, smaller governments passed such legislation. The State of California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act and—almost simultaneously—the State of New York passed the Personal Privacy Protection Law. Both of these legislations give U.S. citizens significantly more privacy protection than any under U.S. law. And not just to state residents, but also to other U.S. citizens whose personal data is accessed or stored in those states.
Without question, we as a society have changed course. The unfettered internet has had its day. Going forward, more and more private companies will be subject to increasingly demanding privacy legislation.
Is this a bad thing? Something nefarious? Probably not. Just as we have always expected privacy in our physical lives, we now expect privacy in our digital lives as well. And businesses are adjusting toward our expectations.
One visible adjustment is more disclosure about exactly what private data a business collects and why. Privacy policies are easier to understand, as well as more comprehensive. Most websites warn visitors about the storage of private data in “cookies.” Many sites additionally grant visitors the ability to turn off such cookies except those technically necessary for the site’s operation.
Another visible adjustment is the widespread use of multi-factor authentication. Many sites, especially those involving credit, finance or shopping, validate login with a token sent by email, text or voice. These sites then verify the authorized user is logging in, which helps avoid leaking private data.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment is not visible: encryption of private data. More businesses now operate on otherwise meaningless cipher substitutes (the output of an encryption function) in place of sensitive data such as customer account numbers, birth dates, email or street addresses, member names and so on. This protects customers from breaches where private data is exploited via an all-too-common breach.
Respecting privacy is now the norm. Companies that show this respect will be rewarded for doing so. Those that allegedly don’t, however, may experience a different fiscal outcome.