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Privacy vs. connectivity: Can there be a balance?

Security and privacy

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, has said that privacy may actually be “an anomaly.” He says this in the context of an increasingly connected world. We now take things like instant messaging, email and social networking for granted, when only a few decades ago many households relied on public-switch telephone networks and the post office for communications.

Cerf’s contention is that human behavior is inherently social, such that we tend to prefer reaching out, which is evident with how social media has grown in popularity. However, this may come at the expense of privacy. You don’t even have to consider recent issues surrounding NSA eavesdropping, as well as targeted advertising by companies like Google, Facebook and the like. Cerf said that even accidental or incidental participation can expose us without our knowledge. As an example: if you’re unwittingly caught on a person’s uploaded photo and someone tags you, then your photo will be exposed for all the world (or at least that person’s friends) to see, even if you did not upload the picture yourself.

Cerf, who is currently a VP at Google and the company’s chief Internet evangelist, said that we need to “develop new social conventions that are more respectful of people’s privacy.”

On a more personal basis, this brings us to think about the balance between privacy and connectivity when exchanging communications. I have been exploring apps and networks that espouse privacy. For instance, I earlier featured two applications, VK-developed Telegram, as well as Silent Circle, which comes from the makers of PGP. I am now currently trying out another freemium app called Wickr, which likewise promises military-grade encryption.

Wickr, available on Google Play and the iTunes App Store, offers features like text messaging, voice messages and file exchange, a self-destruct mechanism for messages, a “shredder” for forensically erasing messages and data from your devices, and peer-based encryption. Wickr says it does not store data on its servers, which means no third party will be able to request the company to turn over information.

All of this is great news for a privacy advocate, of course. It’s free, and I would assume the creators intend to monetize the app through other means, like selling premium features. But my main concern here would be the ease through which I can connect with someone. True enough, Wickr comes with email and mobile number integration, which ideally makes it easier to find someone who is already on the network. But as how messaging services go, you’re likely to find most of your friends on more popular and open networks like Viber, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. That’s because these networks would have already populated your contact list based on your existing contacts. Secondly, these already have big user bases, which increases the likelihood of finding a contact.

Granted, when you want to ensure privacy in your communication, it’s probably because you want to secure (1) the message, and (2) the identity of the other party. You may not necessarily want to keep secret a conversation about something as mundane as a relative’s recent birthday party, how weird the weather today is, or how Red Bull Racing seems to have an undue advantage in the recent Formula One seasons.

However, if you are discussing terms with a potential employer, you wouldn’t want your current boss to find out, would you? Or, if you are discussing a confidential business proposal, you wouldn’t want details to leak. I can think of other possible reasons for keeping communications private, and these include both licit and illicit uses.

I have had the chance to install apps that promise better security, such as Telegram and Wickr. The problem is that my contact list is empty, except for a few other test accounts — which are actually owned by my wife and my kids. Would these privacy-enhancing apps be any use if I have no one else to talk to (my wife prefers Facebook Messenger and my kids prefer Viber instead)?

My point here is that, if I had the choice, then I would prefer all my communications to be private and secure. However, as it stands, most of the people I talk to are on Facebook Messenger, which is a highly insecure platform. Do I mind? Not always. If I want to discuss privately, then I would probably ask the other party to install the more secure app, and then move to that platform once we are on.

But still, in a perfect world, all our messaging apps would ideally be secure from day one. Agree?

Image credit: Cloud security