Tech Savvy: Once more into the (data) breach!
Data breaches might not be just an unfortunate byproduct of an increasingly digital world, they point to a darker truth about how companies like Equifax, Facebook, Google and others do business.
In the modern world, our existence has ascended to the clouds.
Data clouds, that is, as well as any number of servers, digital archives, workforce mobility hubs and the like. This data involves just about every facet of our lives. It’s our social media accounts, contact information, health histories, employment certifications, court registries, credit scores, debit card numbers, housing records, financial services, artistic projects, entertainment outlets, as well as much, much more.
And, this data — this ghostly digital embodiment of us — is filling a rapidly expanding universe that grows by leaps and bounds, exponentially every year. To put it in perspective, articles predicting the rise of data in the mid-2010s audaciously stated that, by 2020, the data universe would be 35 zettabytes (or, 1 trillion gigabytes) large.
According to the data analytics firm Statista, by the end of 2020 we had officially surpassed 64.2 zettabytes, or 81.2 times the amount of data we, as a species, had created as recently as 2009. By 2025, that number is predicted to rise to 181 zettabytes, but if history is any indication, we’ll lap that number just as we have every previous projection.
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So, the data world is a big place and it’s only getting bigger. Every day, humans will increasingly live in a digital imprint of their own creation. With each passing year, more and more nations filled with human beings will make the digital leap, just as India and portions of Africa have in recent years. The breadth and scope of data is beyond the comprehension of the human mind and data will continue to leave the feeble limitations of its creators far, far behind.
Which brings us to the existential horror of the data breach. Data breaches have technically been around since humans ever kept records and, in a more modern sense, data breaches have been a problem since the advent of computers in the 1970s into the 1980s. However, it’s really been since 2005 that data breaches have reached the frequency and scale to have seismic impacts on society.
It happens a lot. According to Varonis, an international analytics and data security firm, millions of breaches occur every year, releasing vulnerable records to the tune of hundreds of millions. And, while the number of breaches may fluctuate or even decline from one year to the next, it’s been a steady trend for decades that the sheer amount of data being compromised is skyrocketing with each flip of the calendar.
We have seen and will continue to see colossal data breaches in the cybersphere because corporations are playing fast and loose with our data as a profitable business practice.
There’s some famous examples. There was the Equifax breach in 2017, when the personal information of 147 million people — key data like, say, social security numbers and credit scores that affect housing, job opportunities and loan eligibility — was breached. In 2019, Facebook — which has faced its fair share of data breaches — revealed the personal information of 509 million people in more than 100 countries was compromised. In 2013, Yahoo lost personal records in the ballpark of 3 billion. Financial institutions are routinely compromised, with JP Morgan Chase, TD Ameritrade, Citigroup, Bank of America, among others, all subject to colossal data breaches of sensitive banking records since 2005.
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There’s a number of solutions we could explore — most of them targeted at the individual level. We just have to wait for the business world to catch up with the rise of Big Data. We need beefed-up firewalls and better training for employees so leaks don’t occur. We need to be more careful when we receive a questionable email from someone we think we know, or we need to err on the side of caution when we see a link that looks suspicious. We need to overhaul our telecommunications laws for the first time since the late ‘80s so it reflects the modern world. We need to be always mindful of the dangers of the digital universe.
But, we also have to be careful that the sins of corporations aren’t foisted on innocent consumers and employees, because the reality is, the actions of individuals can only go so far. Not all breaches are alike, but there are often patterns that emerge, commonalities that speak to a systemic failure in our society.
Specifically, it’s this: We have seen and will continue to see colossal data breaches in the cybersphere because corporations are playing fast and loose with our data as a profitable business practice.
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Equifax makes its money by selling the credit scores of its members to companies — sensitive information, it was noted back during the 2017 breach, customers did not agree to release. Facebook has repeatedly come under fire for selling the personal data of its users, even to the point of peddling data it explicitly promises to withhold and protect in its terms of service. Google, which sells people’s search histories and internet usage patterns, was the subject of its own breach in 2018, presenting yet another violation of trust between customers and the service provider.
That’s the crux of it. Often without our knowledge, without our consent, these companies are selling our data. They’re selling us. Current business practices in these industries create situations ripe for abuse, but then — if these same companies are releasing sensitive information about us, without our knowledge or consent, anyway — data breaches are only part of the problem.
As it is, data breaches are the most visible manifestation of a predatory commercial ecosystem. In a day and age when these companies are able to write their own laws — whether literally, in terms of service agreements with no legal oversight, or federal court rulings that routinely favor corporations over people — what else should we expect? Data breaches, then, are just another form of leakage, just another inevitable price of doing business.
And that is a price that we — the recipients of fraud, violations of privacy, unlawful surveillance and other forms of digital abuse — will have to pay, while they reap the profits.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .