Security, Privacy, Trust Must Be Built into All Hardware, Services

NEWS ANALYSIS: A few companies are showing that they recognize the need to restore a sense of digital trust in an era of massive data breaches and government surveillance.

When did digital trust and privacy move from something expected to something that is only provided at a price?

The Edward Snowden revelations, National Security Agency snooping via alleged back doors into vendor systems, big retailer identity heists and big Internet companies built on consumers trading their privacy for free service are all examples of how far the technology industry has fallen into a trustless economic model.

There are signs of resurgence in building products and services where trust and security are paramount and I applaud those efforts.

Recently, there have been three events which illustrate the trust trend. One was the successful TrustyCon conference held at the same time and in a venue a few blocks away from the yearly RSA Security Conference. Despite fears that the conference would only provide a stage for denouncing the ongoing RSA and NSA allegations regarding backdoor dealings, that's not what happened.

The speakers at TrustyCon were passionate but reasoned in their arguments calling for a return to the concept of building a trusted digital economy. While it might seem odd that a conference was required to advocate for digital trust, the event was a good start in creating the discussion forum. I hope it continues.

Second was the emergence of smartphone vendors who, rather than trying to differentiate their devices based on the number of computing cores, screen resolution or battery life, are promoting the phone’s security features.

While the Blackphone was widely known to be ready for introduction, some other entrants were a surprise. Blackphone, which is a combined effort from the developers at Silent Circle (including PGP developer Phil Zimmerman) and GeeksPhone, uses a modified version of Android to address privacy.

The Boeing Black smartphone was a surprise entrant with essentially a self-destructing secure phone aimed at sales to government agencies. And finally, FreedomPop (founded in part by Skype developer Niklas Zennstrom) has introduced a phone and service based on privacy. In an era where high end smartphones are becoming indistinguishable in their feature sets, privacy and security can be a distinguishing characteristic.

Third is the ongoing fallout from the security breach at Target. While past security breaches and big identity theft heists have tended to be met by shoulder shrugs from consumers, I don’t think that will be the case this time around.

For Target the breach has proved to be both financially and brand damaging. Consumers are still unsure if the breach will affect their credit cards. Meanwhile, a range of new technologies based on secure digital transactions—I’m not talking Bitcoin, but more in the Square category—are coming into the consumer mainstream.

Credit and debit cards based on chip and pin instead of magnetic swipe technology are commonplace in European countries and despite their slightly more cumbersome payment process would, I think, be welcomed by consumers anxious for secure transactions.

The fallout from the Target breach has continued internally with the company recently announcing that the company’s CIO has resigned and the compliance vice president is retiring. CIOs who have offloaded the digital security functions of their company to a Chief Information Security Officer operating in a separate division should realize that whether or not it is on the org chart, digital security is part of their job description.

These three events do not necessarily a trend make, but I’d argue that for a consumer and business customer base exhausted by news over digital break-ins, privacy violations and services which mine user data to provide ever more targeted advertising, vendors that put privacy and trust at the forefront of their product offerings will get a positive customer reception.

Vendors developing new service offerings and product strategies should recognize that privacy, security and trust are three non-negotiable items that need to be at the top of the feature list.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008 authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.