When it comes to the privacy and security of data, what does the future hold for consumers, companies and governments?
A tremendously interesting document, called “Alternate Worlds,” was published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council. It’s a serious document that not only examines four different alternatives of what 2030 might look like, but possesses some major geo-political thinking about the future.
In the entire report there was only one comment regarding privacy, which is amazing. This brings up many questions. Has privacy already become a quaint notion and a relic of times past? Is the loss of privacy a done deal? Will there be any attempt at reclaiming personal privacy? Will renewed privacy only be available to the upper classes? Will companies be required to take responsibility for embedding more security and privacy in their products and systems? Will governments fight for citizens’ rights to privacy or insist on the right to intrude? These all are important 21st century questions, and they are simply impossible to answer now given that there are far too many variables. Only time will tell.
At the moment, however, it is pretty clear that the trend is away from privacy, at least in the way that privacy was defined in prior generations. If you observe first-world high school and college kids, you can easily see that many, if not most, live their lives way out in the open on apps like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and others, and don’t really seem to care all that much who is watching. Lately, more limited audience apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and WeChat that focus on smaller groups rather than general broadcasts have been growing, which belies some return to privacy concerns (i.e. don’t let mom see this), but the generational theme is clearly “live out loud.” Younger people live in a type of virtual society. Let’s call it “Digitopia.” Digitopia is far from a utopian place because it is insecure — really insecure. Cyber criminals, nosey companies, sneaky governmental operators, and other techno-mischief makers run rampant there.
One of the more intriguing predictions in the Alternate Worlds report points to future brain-machine interfaces that could provide super-human abilities, as well as improve strength, speed and other enhancements (i.e. bestow super powers). This notion could have come right out of author William Gibson’s classic cyber-punk novel Neuromancer where people’s brains directly “jack-into” the matrix. The report states:
“Future retinal eye implants could enable night vision, and neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Neuro-pharmaceuticals will allow people to maintain concentration for longer periods of time or enhance their learning abilities. Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations. Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator.”
Hanging Out in Digitopia
Even the peaceful denizens of Digitopia are by default reckless, especially when it comes to their own privacy.
“A significant uncertainty … involves the complex tradeoffs that users must make between privacy and utility. Thus far, users seem to have voted overwhelmingly in favor of utility over privacy,” the Alternate Worlds report states.
As introduced in a prior article called “Digital Annoymity: The Ultimate Luxury Item,” the desire for personalized services is very seductive, and consumers are now complicit in, and habituated to, revealing a great deal about themselves. Volunteering information is one thing, but much of the content about our digital selves is being collected automatically and used for things we don’t have any idea about. People are increasingly buying products that automatically track their lives including cars storing data about driving habits and downloading that to other parties without the need for consent. As we visit web pages, companies get access to our digital histories and bid against each other in milliseconds fir the ability to display their advertising to us. This is kind of creepy. There is now an unholy trinity of governments snooping on us, corporations targeting our buying behaviors, and cyber-criminals trying to rip us off. The antidote is better security, but cyper-security is not something that individuals will be able to make happen on their own.
Data collection systems are not accessible, and they are not modifiable by people without PhDs in computer science. Because of that, security and privacy could easily become commodities which consumers will demand and thus economically force companies to provide. The only weapon consumers have is what they consume. If consumers only purchase secure products, then only secure products will succeed. In Digitopia, a company’s success may become dependent simply upon how well they protect the interests of their customers and partners — that is not a hard concept to understand.
You can almost see how there could easily be the equivalent of a “UL” label for privacy. Products and services could be vetted for the strength of their security mechanisms. Subsequently, products should then be rated on if they have encryption, data integrity checks, authentication, hardware key storage, and other cryptographic bases.
Beyond the testing of the products themselves, there could easily be businesses set up to provide secure protections to individuals and companies like a digital Pinkerton’s for digital assets. It is likely that those who can afford digital anonymity will be the first to take measures to regain it. To paraphrase a concept from a famous American financial radio show host, privacy could replace the BMW as the modern status symbol. The top income earners who want to protect themselves and their companies will be looking for a type of “digital Switzerland.” Regaining privacy will likely democratize over time as the general population will demand the same protections as the 1%-ers. Edward Snowdon showed us that everyone is under some sort of surveillance, so we have to face the facts that data gathering on a grand scale is part of the world now and will only grow in scope. However, we don’t have to just accept insecurity because things can be done, including adding secure devices to digital systems.
The Future Belongs to the Middle Classes
Maybe the most important factor noted in the Alternative World report has to do with the forthcoming growth of middle classes. As populations increase and more people worldwide move into the middle class, a growing number of people and things will be connected. That is why the Internet of Things is expected to grow so quickly. More connected things means more points of attack, and more data gathering for legitimate and illegitimate purposes. Therefore, the need for digital security is tied directly to the number of communicating nodes, which is tied directly to the growth of the middle class. More people with financial means means there will be more things to secure. This is becoming obvious. The middle class buys the lions’ share of products and services, and more of those products and services and how they will be ordered and delivered will be electronic. More people, more electronic things, more need for security.
When it comes to population, South and East Asia are the elephants (and dragons) in the room, as the chart below demonstrates.
The most powerful trend going forward is arguably the emergence of new “super-sized” middle classes in China and India. The worldwide middle class will grow exponentially, and it has already started to super-charge demand for food, energy, and manufactured products — particularly smart communicating electronic devices, many with sensing capabilities. That, of course, is how the IoT is getting started. Major companies are holding out the IoT as a way to drive efficiencies in production and distribution while keeping costs low. You can see that in the literature of major companies such as GE who is targeting the Industrial Internet of Things as a major strategic vector.
Population and purchasing power go hand-in-hand, and the evolution of smart, secure, and communicating systems will follow. As Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. That is why Asia matters so much.
From the demographic analyses, you can see that most Digitopians will be physically living in South and East Asia and this will continue to rise with time. So, what does that mean for security and privacy?
There is a very different view of the privacy rights in Asia due to a varied tapestry of intricate and ancient cultures — cultures that differ from Western traditions in many ways. However, it must be pointed out that that Western governments are far from the white-knight protectors of privacy rights by any means. Even with uncertainty in how privacy will be embraced (or not) long-term woldwide, in the short- to medium-term, enhanced security will have to filter into networks, systems, and end products, including the IoT nodes. You can look at that as securing the basic wiring and digital plumbing of Digitopia, even if governmental institutions retain the right to snoop.
To close on a practical note, in the short- to medium-term there will be a strong drive to embed more robust security to embedded systems, PCs, networks, and the Internet of Things. Devices to enhance security are already available, namely crypto element integrated circuits with hardware based key storage. Crypto elements are powerful solutions, whose fundamental value is only starting to be recognized. They contain cryptographic engines to efficiently handle crypto functions such as hashing, sign-verify (ECDSA), key agreement (ECDH), authentication (symmetric or asymmetric), encryption/decryption, message authentication coding (MAC), run crypto algorithms (elliptic curve cryptography, AES, SHA), among many others. Together with microprocessors that run encryption algorithms crypto elements easily bring all three pillars of security (confidentiality, data integrity, and authentication) into play for any digital system.
As certain forces move the world towards less privacy and more insecurity, it is good to know that there are real technologies that have the potential to move things back in the other direction. To make a fearless forecast, it seems that going forward companies will increasingly be held liable for security breaches, and that will force them to provide robust security in the products and services that they offer. Consumers will demand security and enforce their preferences with class action legal remedies which they are damaged by lack of security. The invisible hand of the market will point towards more security. On the other hand, governments will argue that they have a duty to provide physical and economic security, which gives them license to snoop. Countervailing forces are in play in Digitopia.