Security vs. Freedom: The Balancing Act

“Does history record any case in which the majority was right?” — Robert Heinlein

In 1800, the very idea of traveling across the world at all, let alone in a short period of time, was fraught with risk. From disease to shipwreck to the very unreliability of transportation in general, arriving at your destination safely was an accomplishment in and of itself. Never mind what you did when you got there. Oliver Evans put it this way in 1800:

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour … A carriage will start from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup in New York the same day … Engines will drive boats 10 or 12 miles an hour, and there will be hundreds of steamers running on the Mississippi, as predicted years ago.”

If he could see the world today, he would be astounded. Never did he imagine that ships would be replaced by planes, trains by countless “horseless carriages”, and that those precious forms of transportation would be used as weapons. Nor could he have predicted that a communication system called the internet would be used as a weapon and a tool to spy on those who use it and pay for the devices it works through.

Maybe he should have. Maybe the depravity of man should be foremost in our minds when we move forward with technology. We see the benefits of drones for filming, entertainment, home delivery, and even as a hobby. Do we think of the criminal applications of such innovations before we deploy them?

Location services allow us to find places to shop nearby, use devices in our pockets to navigate unfamiliar areas with ease, and even meet up with friends. They allow those with more nefarious intentions to track our whereabouts, determine when we are not home, where we work, and where we play. We even reveal the routes we take to get there.

We reveal on a daily basis what we like to do, who we like and dislike, how fit we are, and what we do to maintain that fitness.

All of these things are great and awful at the same time. The only thing George Orwell failed to predict in his novel 1984 was that we would voluntarily buy the cameras and microphones, place them in our homes, and even carry them around on our bodies.

We reveal on a daily basis what we like to do, who we like and dislike, how fit we are, and what we do to maintain that fitness.

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We are being watched, but we want to be. If no one likes or shares our post on social media, we feel bad, and such dependence can even lead to depression.

So how do we balance this need for social acceptance with personal security? Because we can be safer. We can turn off location services. We can enable dual authentication on all of our accounts, but that is inconvenient. We won’t be noticed. We won’t be able to navigate as easily. The shops nearest us won’t come up automatically by rating.

We can still function, but it will not be a simple and seamless. The smartphone we rely so much upon will not seem nearly as smart.

Yet it is about balance. Too much security, nd our freedom is impeded. If we use too much technology, exercise too much freedom, we are at risk.

It’s not just technology. We could stay at home. The risk of terror or personal attack is thereby lessened, but it is by no means erased.

The Illusion of Security

Security itself is an illusion. The feeling of security comes from the falsehood that tells us we are either in control or we trust those who are in control in any given situation. Anything you put online has become public, whether you like that fact or not, and the moment you hit enter you have lost control, at least in part, of your data.

Security protocols will give you the illusion of control, and using them is certainly better than ignoring them, but the next big data breach will show you what all the ones before have: your data is only as secure as the weakest link in the data protection chain, and some of those links are really weak.

Encryption, like the type banks and other places use, is very difficult to break. However, passwords are not, and ransomware phishing scams like WannaCry, the one that hit the UK and up to 74 other countries, shows our need to take cyber security seriously.

At the same time, if hospitals and other large institutions with big budgets are vulnerable, how much more vulnerable are you?

Yes, you should use two-step verification for all of your email passwords and any other apps or programs that offer them. You should change your passwords often, and they should be good secure ones.

Ensuring vendors only have access to the areas they absolutely need to would have prevented both the Target and Home Depot breaches that hit the headlines so hard. Access to employee self-service payroll options is essential to increasing adoption rates among employees, but even more vital is to make sure that an employee’s weak password does not provide a gateway for hackers to your company payroll system.

Siloed access creates its own convenience issues, but again, it comes down to the balance between convenience and security and a risk vs. reward analysis. At the same time, we know after the release of Vault 7 (and the possibility that it played a role in WannaCry) that no system, even siloed, is 100 percent secure.

So if safety and security are an illusion, what about freedom?

The Illusion of Freedom

One of the issues with online culture is the feeling of anonymity many users feel. They say things and do things they would never do in person. This wall created by the internet gives users the additional feeling of “it won’t happen to me” when it comes to security breaches.

The issue is that the mean of them feel they have nothing worth hiding, but nothing could be farther from the truth. With access to email, hackers can easily change passwords to everything from banking to health and car insurance sites, access financial and medical records, and infiltrate social media.

Although most people know better, their actions show they feel pretty secure online. The freedom to say and do whatever they want seems like a reality rather than the myth it is. The same passwords are used to secure social media as banking information, and leaky online mail systems are used to transmit both personal and business information regardless of the risk.

Even though this risk was highlighted by Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign and is continuously in the news, for some reason we still see these servers as secure.

The freedom we feel online is truly an illusion, and it can be taken away by nearly anyone at any time. As a seller, like as an author, Amazon can take away your privileges at any time for a number of reasons. Social media accounts can be restricted or banned for a number of reasons.

Nor are those sites secure. Countless accounts are hacked every day. Private messages are far from private as are messenger texts. Sure, you can use a VPN, and that helps, but again, nothing is perfect.

For businesses, the freedom to do business comes at a cost. Not only is there the cost of fraud prevention, but the cost of data security to make sure the fraud prevention system is also safe from attack. An entire infrastructure is required to protect the system that is protecting customers.

Counting the Cost

Freedom is risky. Security is expensive and often restrictive. The perfect balance is hard to achieve. A business or an individual must weigh the risks vs. rewards of any step taken in either direction.

Either way, we are grasping at an illusion. If there is one lesson that WannaCry and the other cyber attacks that have already occurred this year tell us, it is that we are not truly free or truly secure.

There have been personal attacks too, ones that tell us we are not secure or free in other ways either. The search for the balance between freedom, convenience, and security is a never-ending battle.


Originally published at Unbound Northwest.