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Is Anxiety About Our Wired Choices Misplaced?

Instead of dialing up our anxiety about privacy in the changing online world, we should use it as an opportunity to question and test the security of everything—driver's licenses, plastic credit cards, paper medical records.

As an engineer and a millennial who has grown up with an Internet connection, I’m constantly connected to some device. I read email while I’m running on the treadmill. I built an app that knows where you are at all times, which more than two and a half million people opted in to using. Not everyone consumes technology as voraciously as I do, but nearly half of Americans tote around smartphones. As we become more keenly aware of these phones’ ability to track our every move, strangely almost in lockstep we find that we can’t live without them.

Why do we have so much anxiety about being found when we clearly choose to be wired?

If you want to live a truly private life, ditch your mobile, disconnect your Internet, pay with only cash, get rid of your highway toll transponder, forget about loyalty cards, stop answering the census, stop answering the door, build a bunker somewhere underground in New Hampshire (live free or die), drive a pre-2005 unregistered vehicle without a GPS (or better yet, a horse without a GPS), stock up on canned goods, become extremely paranoid—and don’t forget to hide from the IRS.

Unfortunately, going all Thoreau isn’t an option for most of us, despite our desires to keep our online identities under lock and key. And as the recent epic hacking of Wired reporter Mat Honan tells us, we aren’t entirely immune.

But, all things considered, we should be far more paranoid about the real-world constructs centered around identity that we’ve failed to question for decades—sometimes even centuries. The problem is, we’ve grown up with so many blatant divulgences of personally identifiable information that we think are completely safe.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why don’t we question things like credit cards we carry around in our wallets that link our personal information to static and easily visible digits on a piece of plastic? We willingly hand this piece of plastic to strangers almost daily, allowing so many opportunities for massive fraud to happen. Not to mention we print our social security numbers on paper cards and sometimes even send them—unencrypted—over email.

I’d argue physical media (be it paper or plastic) is our identity’s public enemy number one. From medical records to mortgages, there’s so much paper in the world that exposes our identities to anyone who can open a folder in a filing cabinet.

To contrast, the online world that we understand considerably less is a far safer one. Technology is uprooting some of these decades-old constructs that just don’t work, and shouldn’t be status quo for our modern lives. But technological change understandably scares us, as most revolutions do.

That fear is not totally irrational. The trade-off here is one of scale of security breach. While storing your medical records on paper in a doctors office allows for easy data theft, the limit of that theft is the size of the office. It's easy to break into a doctor's office (I don't know this from experience—promise!) but you can only get a couple hundred records. On the other hand, while digital storage is incredibly hard to break into, if you do make it in, the scale of the breach is hundreds of thousands of records.

In my opinion, this is a good tradeoff. The absolute value of data theft should decrease with intensely secure centralized storage. Yes, breaches are larger, but there are far fewer of them. The lesson here is that we need to take that natural scale of the Internet into consideration when designing systems that touch sensitive data. Encryption is critical. Human security perhaps even more so. But also old-school techniques like dividing the data across multiple systems with heterogeneous security systems and completely different architectures.

My hope is that consumers will simply be more aware of these tradeoffs. If it turns out that there is a more secure digital solution, let's analyze, optimize, then embrace it. Payments is a prime opportunity. If there isn't a better digital solution, then let's stick with the current physical solution until technology evolves to offer a better one. Driver's licenses are perhaps the most poignant example of this, and they are the last thing that still forces me to carry a wallet.

No matter what, I’m happy that we’re questioning technological changes and becoming more informed consumers. Maybe we should be using our anxiety about our changing online world as an opportunity to question everything, no matter how long we’ve managed to put up with it.

—Author Seth Priebatsch is the founder and chief ninja of LevelUp and SCVNGR.

[Image: Flickr user Lee]

Add New Comment


  • Jessica Staheli

    Most people with anxiety issues just drink too much caffeine and don't sleep enough

  • Sarah

     "No one cares about privacy!"  Signed Seth Priebatsch, AKA the guy who launched 2 businesses that rely on public data sharing. No conflict of interest there.

    Plenty of people care deeply about their personal information and their privacy.  If they didn't, no one would care about strangers combing through their phone photo albums. No one would need curtains on their windows. Despite the push by data-supported businesses to get everyone to share everything, a lot of that sharing happens without consumers' knowledge, control, or desire.

  • Joe Ginese

    If your driver's license is the only thing that makes you carry a wallet, why not make the driver's license a "smart" license? You can link all your credit cards to your license then swipe your license at purchase points. 


  • Eric_DL

    Hi, nice article.

    I want to add though two significant properties of digital data that its physical counterparts don't provide, and which greatly increase the impact of a digital security breach :

    - digital data are always indexed in some kind of way (for applications to easily browse through), hence it's searchable

    - one can easily build a storage facility with enough capacity to contain say the drivers' license database of a whole country, for just a few hundred dollars

    These facts, combined with the ease of internet communications, allow hackers to combine their data and find patterns to select the best victims with an efficiency never known before.

    Non tech people don't really know all that can actually be done with their personal digital data, but they're getting impressed every day by the large scope and great complexity of tasks a computer can handle.
    I think they feel that the potential of harm of digital data theft can be huge precisely because of this power.


  • Keith

    If advances in technology force us to reconsider how open to compromise our PII is (and has been) this is all for the better. What this all comes down to for me is choice. I want to know what is collected and how it is being used, and I want the option to opt-out if I choose!   

  • Jesús Segura

    I have friends who get bothered by their personal info being out there. I wish more people realized how much is already out there about them that is public record and has been for a long long time well before the internet. We're just more aware but ill informed. Great piece.

  • johnchavens

    Fantastic piece and I couldn't agree more - people need to be more aware of the tools they're already using versus worrying about privacy and identity concerns in ignorance. I'd much rather we all set universal settings for our uber-identities that through an open API of some kind can be accessed by a majority of apps, vendors, etc. I think that's coming soon, but until then we all should be hyper-aware of our data and how it's made available to the world