Internet Privacy and Ron Swanson
Let me tell you a little something about a man called Ron Swanson. First of all, he technically isn’t real, but the brawny brainchild of the ludicrously talented team behind NBC’s hit show Parks and Recreation, and an absolute masterpiece of comedic subtlety.
Ron is a wood-chopping, bacon guzzling, gun shooting, capitalism loving, red-blooded mountain of an American male. Ron loves red meat and personal privacy, and loathes leafy greens and big government. This is a man who simultaneously boasts the stoically disapproving glare (and mustache) of Teddy Roosevelt, the unyielding bravado of Chuck Norris, and the fatherly warmth of Albus Dumbledore.
For Ron, finding out that his computer “knew who he was” after a little online shopping was a blow to his way of life as soul crushing as a devout vegan discovering that their organic, locally-sourced, sustainably grown soy bean turkey bacon had really been Jimmy Dean all along.
Cut to a scene of Ron tossing his entire computer straight into the dumpster.
While very few of us have the time or money to drop off the grid and develop an unyielding distrust for “the system” a lá Ron Swanson, in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack, many of us could serve to take a page from his leather-bound, slightly cigar-scented book. (That is if we can find it.)
In a world where choosing convenience over privacy has become the norm, have we placed too much trust in companies that don’t have our backs?
In Ashley Madison we Trust?
Scandalous corporate data breaches are nothing new. Remember in 2014 when hackers infiltrated Apple’s iCloud and exposed nearly 500 private photos (some definitely NSFW) of celebrities to anyone with an Internet connection? Jo Shmo in Nowheresville Indiana could ogle Jennifer Lawrence’s “assets” while casually sipping his morning coffee. However, it’s hard to imagine that Jo Shmo would remain so brutally apathetic if his email cropped up among the nearly 37 million Ashley Madison users exposed by the “hacktivist” group “Impact Team” this past July.
This is precisely why the salacious site's hack is unique from previous high-profile hacks. It not only shattered millions of users’ belief in safety through anonymity (sorry Jo Shmo), but also uncovered the sad fact that millions of adulterous spouses failed to see the blatant irony in trusting their highly personal information (i.e. sexual preferences, addresses, and GPS co-ordinates) with a company whose very foundation is built upon deceit and betrayal. I can almost hear Ron Swanson quietly chuckling to himself somewhere.
Is Our Data Ever Truly Safe?
However, the A.M. hack is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. Like many businesses, Avid Life Media, the Canadian company who owns Ashley Madison as well as two other dating websites “Cougar Life” and “Established Men” is not a publicly traded company. As such, it is not held to the same industry-standard regulations, rules, and best practices of larger corporations—meaning that legally, the company (like many others out there) is not bound to uphold strong security measures. This makes it all too easy for execs to cut corners when it comes to safeguarding data.
Your best bet for keeping your personal information safe on the internet (besides pulling a Ron Swanson) is to consider whether the company is publicly traded or federally regulated (i.e. banks, hospitals, or national merchants). Such companies are held to cyber security standards that far exceed those of private companies. Another solid indicator of security would be if the company has a cybersecurity expert serving on their board, or a jobs page that includes listings for certified InfoSec personnel. While yes, this may sound a bit tedious, maybe even paranoid, it’s a meager price to pay for keeping your personal data well, personal.
Unfortunately, the issue of safeguarding personal privacy on the internet has been around for years. Speaking at the Counter Terror Expo in 2011, Edward Gibson, former head of cybersecurity at Microsoft and director of security with PWC Global issued a prophetic warning to those of us unconcerned with data security: “Are we a frog that doesn’t realize the water it is in is starting to come to the boil?” Well, Mr. Gibson, it took four years but the water is officially boiling and 37 million philandering froggies are feeling the heat.