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Communications of the ACM

Privacy and security

Summing Up

Summing Up, illustration

The privacy and security Viewpoints column had its start six years ago. Though our 25 columns have had 23 different sets of authors, the fact is that an editor puts an imprint on a column simply by selecting potential contributors. No one should hold sway for too long, and so this column is the last under my leadership as section board member for the Privacy and Security column. It is a good time to ask how privacy and security have fared over the last half-dozen years.

The short answer is that for privacy and security, this is not the best of times. If privacy and security were students in a course, right now their grades would be somewhere between an F and an F-minus (for those readers unfamiliar with the U.S. academic system, an "F" for fail is as low as you can go). Consider just the events of the past two years. We have had the Snowden leaks, which show the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) partnering with the intelligence agencies of the other "Five Eyes" (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and U.K.) vacuuming up metadata (signals about communications), and, in many instances, heavily collecting content as well. The Snowden leaks also demonstrate a breach of security within the NSA and its contractors. Under legal requirements, the British telecommunications company Vodafone must provide the governments of six unnamed nations with direct access to all communications.7 U.S. retailer Target ignored the warnings of breach behavior from its security firm, Fire-Eye, resulting in the theft of 40 million credit and debit cards (more correctly, data sufficient to forge 40 million credit and debit cards).13 Meanwhile Facebook has a new product that records ambient sounds on user request—thus not only capturing lots of information about the enrolled user but also capturing conversations of unsuspecting bystanders. Google is strongly pressing users to have an always signed-on experience, particularly on their smartphones.11


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