We are drowning in a sea of data. And data insecurity.


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Another day, another report of a security breach affecting hundreds of thousands of people. This time it's the infiltration of a University of Maryland database including the Social Security numbers and other personal information of over 300,000 people dating back to 1998.

But it could have just as easily been the vulnerability of health information at a trio of nursing homes. Or the breach at a major retail chain that affected the credit and debit card accounts of millions of customers. Stories about the insecurity of the modern world are so frequent that they become routine to reporters covering the beat.

These types of breaches are an almost inescapable consequence of one fact about modern life: We are drowning in a sea of data.  

Vast amounts of our lives are measured or recorded in ways that just were not possible before the advent of modern computing. When you buy groceries, your store discount card is creating a profile of your shopping habits. Some stores even physically track you with the wireless from your phone. When you visit  your doctor, the information likely ends up in an electronic records system. Signing up for car insurance? There's your driving record pulled.

With every Web site you visit, every text you send, data is created that can be used to quantify your life.  It's so common that most consumers don't give it a second thought. And because of how pervasive it is, consumers don't necessarily have control over who has their information or for what purposes.

There any many positive aspects of this status quo: Ad-supported services, like those many consumers rely on online, can remain free. And research using this data can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us.

So from government databases to private industry, it is increasingly impossible for consumers to opt out of having information about them squirreled away somewhere. But as our reliance on information technology increases, the security that protects this information is being challenged -- and too often it is found wanting.

When that happens, as at the University of Maryland, both the hacked entity and the individuals who've had their personal information swiped suffer.  The university is offering free credit monitoring for a year to those affected.

But the nature of security vulnerabilities and hacks means that it sometimes takes months or years for a bug to be discovered, and if information is stolen it could be a while before it is sold on a black market or be deployed for fraudulent purposes.

Of course, the creation and collection of data is nothing new -- governments have been taking censuses throughout history and merchants have kept records for centuries. But technology now means society's capacity to create and retain data is far more sophisticated -- as are the available methods for analyzing data.

But for consumers, the benefits of this data driven world are weighed against the security and privacy implications it raises.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.

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Timothy B. Lee · February 20, 2014