Gawker, Wikileaks and online insecurity

I wrote a comment piece for The Independent today, looking at the social impact of the Gawker hack and the growth of privacy and security concerns in personal online spaces. This is a slightly longer, pre-edited version

With every new hack, we are a little less impressed. When over a million Gawker user accounts were compromised, and hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts starting spewing adverts for a diet relying on acai berries, sighing users registered the inconvenience; changed their passwords en masse; and life went on. This wasn’t Wikileaks or government secrets, after all. The digital world is just a little older and wiser.

Or is there more to it than this? Digital identity may not be on the same level as diplomatic cables, but it’s a serious business. With an increasingly important component of many lives playing out across social networks—which now connect close to a billion people across the world—and via online consumption, sharing and commenting, the hijacking of any part of this personal jigsaw is both an intense emotional blow and an assault on assets with a growing real-world value.

In a world where an inappropriate photo uploaded on Facebook can cost you your job, or a tongue-in-cheek Tweet can mean criminal prosecution, it’s clear that the notion of a clean division between “real” and “virtual” spheres no longer applies. This has made privacy and data security vital issues over the last few years. Beyond this, though, are larger cultural questions: how and where do people feel confident in expressing themselves, and free to build an identity?

One message the Wikileaks affair has broadcast is the power of digital records to damn those who create them. There is an extraordinary vulnerability that comes hand-in-hand with the extraordinary communicative potential of new media. And in this respect, sensitive diplomatic records and sensitive personal details aren’t too different: it’s only what you haven’t written down and recorded that can’t hurt you.

The post-Wikileaks political world is set to be both a more paranoid and a more old-fashioned one: more reliant on personal meetings, phone-calls, even written messages; less promiscuous with its networking and digital recordings. But high-profile events like the Gawker hack suggest that some aspects of social life, too, may experience a paradoxical pressure towards the offline, old-school realm—where authenticity can be guaranteed, discretion expected, and no records kept.

At the least, concerns over platform security and privacy are entering the mainstream where once they were the preserve of a tech-savvy minority. The firewalls are starting to go up: around governments and corporations, but also around individuals. Smartphones and tablet computers—the two classes of device on which the future of digital culture is increasingly being forged—tend to offer both a more limited and a more secure online experience than open browsing on a traditional operating system. The humble text message is already a more important social instrument than email (the average American teen exchanges over 3,000 texts a month) thanks in part to its greater security, specificity, convenience and relative immunity to the clogging forces of spam.

As our online activities play a steadily increasing part in determining what we and the world conceives of as “us,” it seems inevitable that we will become both more discerning and more paranoid digital citizens. After the last few weeks, this process may have taken another leap forward.