Data Privacy Became a National Political, Business Issue in 2014

From Ponemon to Pew, a series of surveys on privacy and U.S. citizens have found that people are paying more attention to how government and companies handle their data.

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In 2013, the leak of classified U.S. government documents caused immediate repercussions both diplomatically and politically in many countries, especially for United States citizens, but public perceptions have taken longer to shift.

Yet shift they have. A year later, citizens are concerned that they lack privacy online and have grown more wary of corporate data collection and government surveillance, according to a number of surveys released in the last month.

A recent survey by Pew Research, for example, found 80 percent of adults concerned with government surveillance, and 70 percent concerned with how information posted online is used by companies. Meanwhile, 91 percent of consumers believe they have largely lost control of their personal information and how it is collected online.

The surveys show that consumers have woken up to the lack of privacy protections online and that could be an opportunity for companies, Eve Maler, a former Forrester Research analyst and now vice president of innovation and emerging technologies at security firm ForgeRock, told eWEEK.

"Consumers are not really happy with the situation—they are ready for some different options," she said. "It largely seems hopeless to them, and that is an opportunity, I think, in the marketplace."

Consumers' privacy will likely become a major factor for businesses in 2015. Already, companies such as Apple and Google have followed the rising tide of privacy concerns, turning encryption on by default, for example, in their mobile device operating systems.

A host of companies have launched products that focus on privacy and communications encryption, such as the privacy-first mobile phone Blackphone and encrypted messaging services Wickr. Startup companies that have made privacy a core value, such as the social network Ello, have also grabbed the public's attention.

More subtle activity is driven by privacy concerns as well. Many companies are looking more closely at open-source software, for example, because the greater transparency of the code is considered a privacy plus, Larry Ponemon, chairman of the market survey firm Ponemon Institute, told eWEEK.

In a survey of information-technology and IT security practitioners, the Ponemon Institute found that more than half of U.S. companies and about two-thirds of EU companies, placed more trust in open-source commercial code to reduce privacy risks, compared with closed-source code.

"The problem for many companies is that proprietary software potentially may be doing things with your data that you might not know," Ponemon said. "You get the pledge of the privacy policy, but no one reads it until there is a problem."

Yet privacy concerns are cyclical. In the 1990s, the backlash over government plans to create an encryption chip, the Clipper Chip, with a known backdoor for law enforcement gave momentum to privacy experts seeking greater protections. The current public concerns with data collection and communications surveillance could lead to a similar push for more privacy protections.

"Ordinary people seem to be remarkably sanguine about what is really going on," ForgeRock's Maler said. "When it comes down to actual risk, however, people do what is necessary."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...