Information wants to be protected: Security as a mindset

George-Orwell-house-big-brotherI was teaching a class last week and mentioned something about privacy to the students. One of them shot back, “you’re paranoid.” And again, at a meeting with some folks about missionaries, and how best to protect them when trouble comes to their door, I was again declared paranoid. In fact, I’ve been told I’m paranoid after presentations by complete strangers who were sitting in the audience.

Okay, so I’m paranoid. I admit it.

But what is there to be paranoid about? We’ve supposedly gotten to the point where no-one cares about privacy, where encryption is pointless because everyone can see everything anyway, and all the rest. Everyone except me, that is—I’ve not “gotten over it,” nor do I think I ever will. In fact, I don’t think any engineer should “get over it,” in terms of privacy and security. Even if you think it’s not a big deal in your own life, engineers should learn to treat other people’s information with the utmost care.

In moving from the person to the digital representation of the person, we often forget it’s someone’s life we’re actually playing with. I think it’s time for engineers to take security—and privacy—personally. It’s time to actually do what we say we do, and make security a part of the design from day one, rather than something tacked on to the end.

And I don’t care if you think I’m paranoid.

Maybe it’s time to replace the old saying information wants to be free. Perhaps we should replace it with something a little more realistic, like:

Information wants to be protected.

It’s true that there are many different kinds of information. For instance, there’s the information contained in a song, or the information contained in a book, or a blog, or information about someone’s browsing history. Each piece of information has a specific intent, or purpose, a goal for which it was created. Engineers should make their default design such that information is only used for its intended purpose by the creator (or owner) of that information. We should design this into our networks, into our applications, and into our thought patterns. It’s all too easy to think, “we’ll get to security once things are done, and there’s real data being pushed into the system.” And then it’s too easy to think, “no-one has complained, and the world didn’t fall apart, so I’ll do it later.”

But what does it mean to design security into the system from day one? This is often, actually, the hard part. There are tradeoffs, particularly costs, involved with security. These costs might be in terms of complexity, which makes our jobs harder, or in terms of actual costs to bring the system up in the first place.

But if we don’t start pushing back, who will? The users? Most of them don’t even begin to understand the threat. The business folks who pay for the networks and applications we build? Not until they’re convinced there’s an ROI they can get their minds around. Who’s going to need to build that ROI? We are.

A good place to start might be here.

And we’re not going to until we all start nurturing the little security geek inside every engineer, until we start taking security (and privacy) a little more seriously. Until we stop thinking about this stuff as just bits on the wire, and start thinking about it as people’s lives. Until we reset our default to “just a little paranoid,” perhaps.

P.S. I’m not so certain we should get over it. Somehow I think we’re losing something of ourselves in this process of opening our lives to anyone and everyone, and I fear that by the time we figure out what it is we’re losing, it’ll be too late to reverse the process. Somehow I think that treating other people as a product (if the service is free, you are the product) is just wrong in ways we’ve not yet been able to define.


  1. Johnny Britt on 15 September 2015 at 4:04 pm

    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”