Digital Conservation: Protecting Our Fragile Trust Ecosystem

A Data Privacy Day (#DPD) article filled with metaphors, appropriation and metaphoric appropriation.

Happy #DataPrivacyDay or as they call it in Europe, #DataProtectionDay!

As a two-bit agitator against ignorance and corruption, I am increasingly concerned about the question of climate. The global digital ecosystem, fickle as it may be, has fostered a climate in which humans are able to communicate, transact and co-exist thanks to a fabric of trust weaved together by mathematical algorithms.

Bit by bit (and soon, qubit by qubit), unimaginable volumes of activity unfold in a vast, sustained effort to power the modern world. If it were just about bringing my recycled electrons to your attention, it might not be worth the trouble, but what is at stake is much more important as changes in this climate of trust are now having a global impact.

The digital world we depend on is made possible by computers trusting one another as they pass multitudes of math tests every nanosecond in a frenzy of challenges and responses that uniquely identify the individual interlocutors in every digital conversation across the world. With the increasingly loud and relentless push against data encryption, the elegant systems and beautiful dance of this complex production are now at risk of being invaded, the trust relationships shattered and the exclusive, intimate conversations taking place between software algorithms corrupted by the watchful eyes of surveillance mechanisms forced into existence by fear-mongering and intimidation. This threat is due to human activity. The very humans who depend on this essential ecosystem.

As you read this, people in positions of power are leveraging their influence to undo the fabric of society by trying to control confidentiality and weakening data encryption, under the contrived pretext of law enforcement, social order and public safety.

This dangerous experiment hinges upon the uninformed, public consent to the compromise of the fragile secrecy that keeps the world humming, from every financial transaction to all trade secrets to the trust we place in electronic communications. Clearly, this is not an experiment we should be encouraging and no one should tolerate such notions because they come at the unaffordable cost of irreversible damage to our digital climate of trust.

From the systemic lack of responsibility in social platforms to the failing ethics of targeted surveillance to politicians that foment distrust by acting as a megaphone for fear, uncertainty and doubt, that digital climate is at an inflection point. Ambitious privacy legislation is seeing public interest around the world, but so is aggressive lobbying against it. As a child growing up in an Eastern Bloc country, I experienced first hand the effects of the climate of fear and intimidation perpetrated by those who want to maintain persistent visibility into the lives of others. Over the past quarter century on these very shores, I witnessed the suffocating weight of capital at work as a mechanical lever against civil liberties.

The pressure cooker atmosphere of the present moment is heavy with historical significance and exhausting cognitive dissonance. But it is precisely the fading trust that we place in democracy, authority and technology that stands as a barometer of global risk that thinking people cannot afford to ignore.

Without even considering the Clipper Chip debacle of the 90s, there are chilling precedents foreshadowing digital climate change, from the US NSA’s secret bribes to the current efforts to enforce Australia’s anti-encryption law. Over the past decade many front-row seat tickets went unclaimed as most of the world missed the spectacle and the intrigue of events that led to trusted international standards being discredited left with their credibility in tatters as a result of trusted organizations allowing themselves to be corrupted and manipulated.

For #DPD this year, I hope we all develop a better awareness of and sensitivity towards the tautologies presented by the broken arguments and false narratives that continue to erode the integrity of modern technology. To paraphrase the authors of a particularly insightful article on this topic: “proposed legislative changes foreshadow global attacks on encryption”.

In a society under constant assault by disinformation, that would leave us with nothing left to trust.

Personal musings on data protection fails, snafus and oddities, collected, composed and edited by Claudiu Popa; author, educator, bibliophile.

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