The Internet and the Fundamental Question of Trust

The Ashley Madison debacle –the release of millions of records of the company’s customers engaging, or seeking to engage, in extramarital affairs– is, certainly, great movie material. Seldom do we see the oldest human passions intermingled with new technologies exposing millions of folks to ridicule, loss of privacy, and in many cases serious personal consequences in their personal lives –all due to the confluence of insufficient security safeguards, questionable business practices, and a hacker community doggedly becoming a company’s enemy.

Patched Heart

Aside of the oft-repeated but seldom followed precepts for fully protecting data from outsiders and from insiders as well, there is a serious question to ponder. This relates not to technology per se, but to how users of all stripes and backgrounds even today implicitly trust the internet. In retrospect, Ashley Madison’s own fine-print should have made many of its users suspicious as the company was not, per their own admission, especially protective of their customer’s data.

The company, for example, indicated that it might sell and disclose personally identifiable information in case of a merger, sale, or bankruptcy. Ashley Madison made no guarantees regarding protecting that information, nor did it guarantee that its information “will not be disclosed to third parties,” and that in case of disclosure the company would “not be liable for any damages whatsoever.” (See linkhere)

After the most private secret activities and fantasies of many have been released, many users are now lamenting their never reading the fine print. While other data breaches generally relate to information collateral to individuals in the course of paying their taxes, doing their shopping, or getting medical care, the Ashley Madison breach is squarely about confidential and embarrassing information that users expressly posted themselves, out of their own initiative, on purpose, and willfully. That users did this, and actually paid to do this, reveals something profound about all of us today.

Falling Trust

And that is that the average internet user still places a lot of confidence and trust, often unwarranted as the facts have shown, on websites and companies of which they know little. The impact of the Ashley Madison breach may perhaps be foremost about corroding this trust. This trust in strangers is what makes, in no small measure, the internet a lively and exciting place.

This latest debacle reminds us that it might be a difficult but still nevertheless essential task for all developers and internet companies to raise to the challenge of making the internet a place deserving of a person’s trust by ensuring effective, real privacy and confidentiality. If we become wary of the internet to the point of not trusting large portions of it, innovation and technology adoption will suffer to the detriment of all.

Falling Trust, Courtesy of Stuart Miles; Damaged Heart, Courtesy of fotographic1980; freedigitalphotos.net.

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