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A New Decade Means A New Frontier in Technology and Security

Can we imagine a new decade in which we protect our privacy and security while still maintaining innovation and freedom online?

As we inch toward the new year, I think it’s interesting to think about where we came from. Somebody made a comment that we can finally say “The Twenties” in reference to a decade (they questioned how good “the teens” or “the tens” sounded). Yet, for so many people, The Twenties refers to a period 100 years ago, a century ago. It’s crazy to think about the years that have passed, but it’s even crazier when you think about technology.

I can remember playing creatively named games like Bowling, Boxing, and Hockey on the Atari when I was young and upgrading to a Nintendo a few years later. I remember playing Jill of the Jungle on my Tandy and Doom and Duke Nukem 3D on my first “real” computer (a Pentium 75). I got into technology because I wanted more time on the computer and I replaced Windows ’95 with Slackware because no one else in the house knew how to use it, effectively locking my family out of the computer.

These days, I’m closer to 40 than 30 or as friends like to remind me closer to 50 than 20. When my parents were my age, Windows XP still hadn’t been released, the PS2 had not yet revolutionized console gaming, and the Nokia 3310 was the most popular phone in the world. Take a second to think about that: Twenty years ago, none of these things existed, yet today they seem archaic. Before that the biggest leaps in communications were probably touchtone dialing in the 70s and Caller ID in the 90s.

When I was a teenager, my parents’ biggest worries were wondering if I would run up the long distance bill or tie up the phone line. If a virus hit our computer, it meant I couldn’t play games or do my homework. Today, parents have to wonder about the strangers messaging their kids on Instagram, or losing all of their memories in a ransomware attack because nobody owns photo albums anymore. A breach of a computer system isn’t some kid playing around at night in their parents’ basement, it’s organized crime looking to steal identities and nation-states searching for secrets. Everyone is connected, but those connections have made the world a darker, sadder, more vicious place.

My favorite bookstore down the street is gone, my sister was just complaining that she couldn’t buy men’s jogging pants in town because of the stores that have closed, and my apartment building just informed me that rent must now be paid online. We’re losing face to face interactions and we’re driving business online. We have our Starbucks delivered, someone buys our groceries for us, and we push a button on our phones and get in a stranger’s car. I remember in the late 90s when my parents freaked out because I was going out for coffee with a group of “online friends,” I could only imagine someone’s reaction then if they saw the world today.

We could debate the pros and cons of this shift for days, there are definitely people on both sides of the fence. My attitude changes daily depending on where I am and what I need. None of that changes the additional value all of this places on our personal information. Look at the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can). Much of what he did then would not work today, but there are so many new techniques that are much scarier than anything accomplished in that film.

Let’s take one small aspect of our changing world – real estate. It seems that half of my friends on Facebook are real estate agents and they are constantly posting listings for new homes. These listings end up cached on dozens of websites, with pictures of the home persisting forever. I recently looked up the name of someone I only know through gaming and found two addresses. Once he confirmed which town he lived in, there was only one address left. Within minutes, I had a full floor plan for his house with pictures of each room from the last time it had been listed online. If I were a thief, this would be a treasure trove of information. The guesswork around a house layout has been removed, you can look up almost any address and, as long as it’s been sold recently (or even just listed), you know where you are going.

We can take this a step further and pair it with community groups. I recently saw a posting on social media for my neighborhood group that someone was going out of town for 6 weeks and wanted to rent out their home. A thief watching this group would know exactly when the house is going to be empty or, at the very least, occupied by someone who may not notice items missing. Search for the poster’s name, pull up the real estate listing, and suddenly you know when the house is going to be most vulnerable and a layout of where you likely want to look to get in and out quickly.

So, as we move into a new decade, we need to think seriously about how we want the next 10 years to play out and what is society going to look like. How do we invest in protecting our privacy, how do we invest in our security, and how do we accomplish both those things while maintaining the freedom that technology has brought us over the past two decades?

I think that, in some cases, we may need to take a step backwards. In others, we need new technology, and, finally, we need user education. First and foremost, we need to teach future generations about the risk of exposing everything online. The Internet was new when I was a kid and I like to think that my parents’ paranoia instilled some caution in me. Today, however, as parents are completely comfortable and 6-year-old children have their own cell phones, we need to make sure we’re teaching those kids about the dangers of the internet.

It’s a scary topic, but we need to tell them about human trafficking, teach them about people creeping social media, and warn them that there are now worse things than taking candy from strangers. This needs to be built into our education system. Our politicians and our educators need to work together to get all of this scary information distilled into a message that children can digest and understand. Parents need to further invest in ensuring their kids understand the risks all around them.

Then, we can start to look at scaled back technology, restricted technologies for children and even some adults. Should the default settings on Instagram allow anyone to message another user? Should Facebook display your profile picture to the world by default? Should real estate listings be maintained and searchable after a house is sold? Should they even be fully visible to those without registered accounts? We were so excited for the freedom of information that the Internet allowed us, that we didn’t question how much of it should be freely shared and with whom we should share it.

Several friends have shared (WARNING: VERY DARK CONTENT) this Medium article on Facebook recently and many of them have children. I don’t, but I do have nieces and nephews and the article scared the crap out of me. We need to be aware of what’s going on around us, what the world is like today, and we need to start changing it for the better. I think a lot of that change needs to start with those of us in information security as we look at new tools, new technologies, and new ways to clean the filth off the Internet.

This may not be the happiest way to ring in the new year, but it’s something that is weighing heavily on my mind as we approach a new decade. We must recognize the need for a global resolution to clean up the internet, protect our privacy and eliminate the risk. We’ve reached a point where those risks aren’t even hiding in the shadows anymore, they’re sitting out in the open and that can’t be allowed to continue.

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