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A virus may have altered – and even curtailed or limited – our movement around in the physical world, but we continue to traverse the virtual inner world. A commentary by Ralph Echemendia, known as “The Ethical Hacker,” a world-renowned cybersecurity expert.
It was only a few months ago that many of us were flying around the world, enjoying live music, sports and all kinds of events, going to meet friends at a bar by public transportation and ridesharing services, all along the way using computing devices in every aspect of those activities. From banking and buying tickets, choosing where to eat and drink, making plans or ordering in, every activity in more than one way was being saved, tracked and used to make products and services to make life more efficient and convenient. A virus may have altered – and even curtailed or limited – our movement around in the physical world, but we continue to traverse the virtual inner world. Think of all the pieces of information that we generate in the cyber echosphere as if they are grains of sand that make up the individual and collective beach we call life. In technology we call these grains data.
... known as “The Ethical Hacker,” is a world-renowned cybersecurity expert. For over 20 years, Ralph has delivered training on hacking and other security information to corporations including Nasa, Google and IBM. He has also worked as a technical supervisor on films in Hollywood.
In my more than 28 years in technology and specifically computer security, a lot has changed and yet nothing has changed when it comes to data, other than how much of it we provide, consume and to which we have access. Cybersecurity is, by nature, just as humans, a matrix of contradiction. While we continue to use the word “security,” we are all but secure. While we are more connected than ever and want to be “a part of it all,” we find ourselves more apart from it all. We have been trying to define what “privacy” and “online security” is, not realizing what it means offline. The virtual is now as physical as it can be. Today is a very different day. The line between digital and physical is not grey, it no longer exists. This is compounded by the fact that we are now in the process of creating a post-pandemic (Covid-19) world. The implications and use of data have forever changed. Now, in the name of safety, we must grasp the importance of data transparency while redefining the meaning of privacy. Tomorrow will look nothing like the past. Nothing will be the same, including data security. Access to information on everything from our health records to our buying patterns plays an active role in the safety or lack thereof of our wellbeing. We must ask “What does this mean to me?”, but also “What does this mean to others?” What I as an individual think should be private may no longer apply in the name of public safety. Am I okay with that? Are you? As Spock from Star Trek would say, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” (Can you tell I am a Trekkie, too?) But do we all feel this to be true? Governments will now access more data and participate in cross-boundary cooperation to access more data than ever before, more personally identifiable information. More data like that from temperature-screening cameras to identify who you may have recently been in contact with. In the name of public safety, of course. All of the good and the bad results of this government activity is thanks to data and access to it. In a world of contradiction this data may be what ultimately provides balance. We who create the technologies and the data itself have yet to fully comprehend the significance such massive scale of accessibility has had and the impact yet to come.
I am asked many times what I think the future looks like. You may agree or disagree with my assessment, but one thing is unarguable – you are data now. We all are! Our individual safety and security is truly a global matter. This coronavirus is forcing us to deal with many issues we have chosen to ignore or of which we were wholly unaware. We must now define what we believe should be accessible and transparent and what should not, in the name of safety not security. The same way that we are spreading this virus as a matter of improper hygiene and haphazard social contact, we must also recognize that we are in the midst of a digital pandemic, one that has been going on for much longer than we realize, one whose results will force us to define proper cyberhygiene. The aftermath of this pandemic will lead to the evolution of a safer digital and physical world.
If content is king, data is the kingdom. And in that kingdom we inhabit, we are going to have to redefine the meaning of digital security.
The question is not: At what price? The question, in fact, is: What information do we all agree we should contribute to improve humanity and make our world safer? While I could get very technical in terms of encryption, endpoint protection, application vulnerabilities, penetration testing or computer forensics, I won’t! Simply because in my many years as a professional working in the field, it hasn’t made much of a difference. We talk about these things at conventions and conferences, at cons and meetings, oftentimes realizing we are just talking to ourselves. Unless you are one of those persons, companies or governments whose data has been hacked, stolen, ransomed and used, only then – maybe – you understand the gravity of the data illness we have been transmitting. There are many cyberattacks taking place, many data breaches you have not heard about, under the cover of our absorption with Covid-19. All of our attention is on this physical virus that has so alarmingly swept the world. As our habits and behaviors are adapting, hacking is still happening, in fact more than ever. Some of that hacking is good, like The Global Hack event, which had more than 10,000 participants from around the globe and rendered countless solutions to the problems we are facing. However, the illegal hacks, well, we will hear about them, too … eventually. Not only will we hear about them but we will be influenced by them in some way. Still, I am optimistic about our future. Technology is the answer. With all this technology, there will be apps that society will use to track pedophiles, convicted sex offenders, domestic violence, terrorism, and police brutality as many parts of the world are protesting to reform law enforcement due to decades, if not centuries, of injustices. Technology must – and I believe will – help solve these real world problems. These solutions will soon be coming to a mobile device on you. I strongly believe that it is for the greater good, I believe that we will increase the security of our systems by better defining what it means to be safe, safe in the ways we utilize technology and not how technology utilizes us. The future of our physical and social immunity to the viruses of modern life relies on cybersecurity. So, let’s get on with redefining privacy for this moment in history and increase safety. Only then can we be more secure online and off. It is, literally, in our hands.
In Hollywood, they say that content is king. I say, “If content is king, data is the kingdom.” And in that kingdom we inhabit, we are going to have to redefine the meaning of “digital security.” In the name of safety, we are going to have to be more transparent. We are going to have to give up not less but more information about ourselves. From a cybercrime perspective, if data is more transparent, it has a less likelihood to be exploited. If everybody has the data, it doesn’t have the same value as if private. Redefining what privacy means to data, as a result of the pandemic, will ultimately lead to a more transparent place for data, where it will no longer have value to the cybercriminal. That is the New World.
Author: Ralph Echemendia
Illustration: Valentin Berger
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.