United States seen from orbit

The power of data – it’s bigger than we know

With ethical hackers and cryptographers in the mix, it is hard to ignore how integral data has become in our everyday lives.

Data as a resource

The World Wide Web was publically accessible by 1989 and was tasked with its most basic function; sharing information between people.

While it initially was used amongst scientists to share their findings, it wasn’t long before the rest of the world was surfing their way through this new digital world.

Now, there is research to indicate that our phones are using us, just as much as we are using them. In order to do this, apps on our devices would have to sort our data and use it in some way to insight-tech based action.

A close up of an individuals' hands using an iPhone over a Macbook Pro laptop.

Mr Damien Manuel, Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation (CSRI) notes the significance of the internet and its implications on our personal data.

“Data is fundamental because it’s now used to make decisions, drive information and it has now become a resource that can be monetized,” he says.

From the early iterations of the web and computers, how we acquire applications has changed momentously.

In the past, it was possible to purchase an app, install it and own the data produced from it.

Now, the game has changed. Mr Manuel points out when some companies give you a free app it can “make your life easier or help you connect with people and no one really questions why they are giving it away for free.”

An image of the Facebook feed on a mobile phone.

“Keep in mind that someone is paying for them to produce it, maintain it and update it. The trade-off is you’ve actually become the product.

“Now, these companies are able to sell the information and data they collect on you to other providers, governments and marketing companies.”

We need to consider what ways is our data being accessed and why there aren’t any programs in place to improve online behaviours?

Third-party recipients: what does it mean for us?

Even when we knowingly give providers our data, it has the ability to travel internationally in ways we might not expect.

Mr Manuel gave us a rundown of how this might happen in our day-to-day lives, like something as simple as filling out a mortgage application form at your local bank.

“A bank may seem like a single entity [like your local branch], but really behind the scenes of that brand are a whole bunch of organisations – your typical bank might have anywhere from 1000 to 5000 organisations that they are reliant on…by sharing data or data manipulation.”

The connection between our bank and other organisations means that processes after the application leaves our hands aren’t as simple as they seem.

Office buildings in Montreal, Canada.

As Mr Manuel describes a mortgage application form is “put in an envelope, at the end of the day its picked up by a courier company, it is then transferred to an associated company with Australia Post, who then scan that information.”

“That information is then transmitted to another third party often in a country like India, because of lower wage resource section, who then receive that digital copy and manually enter it into the digital banking system.”

“That’s a whole chain of people who have had access to that information just from you filling in a simple form in a branch.”

The good side of digital innovation

These insights into how our data is used can be frightening sometimes.

But, Mr Manuel acknowledges that it is all down to a person or groups intent. Some apps or tech can be sinister but it can also improve our lives as well.

He asks us to think about new infrastructure developments like smart meters; a device that measures your electricity use digitally.

It gauges when and how much electricity you use which can allow homeowners to see the bigger picture when it comes to their power or enable them to sell or share their power with a neighbour.

The city of Paris lit up at night.

Alternatively, it also means retailers can offer you services and products based on this information.

Mr Manuel says that services like these are “very cool things that help to improve our quality of life, but if we don’t manage the privacy implications properly they are recipes for disaster.”

These innovations can alter our lives in positive and even groundbreaking ways.

It is the protection of the public’s privacy, whether that is our water use, electricity use or social media activity, that allows this technology to continue doing great things.

Click, connect, protect

It is clear how easy it is for uploaded data to be obtained by others. Now, part of our everyday internet use is inevitably trying to find safe spaces online.

Mr Manuel suggests that alternative search engines like Duck Duck Go (which don’t filter out websites – like Google) may be a good idea when it comes to privacy as it also doesn’t track your search queries or the sites you visit.

He also notes that “when you’re browsing the web you can enable privacy settings telling website you don’t want to be tracked.”

A row of data servers.

While these tips may be a great way to protect yourself online, Mr Manuel says, “the unfortunate thing about doing this in a browser is that it often degrades the end-user experience.”

“What happens is that everything has been so intertwined and intergrated, that if you do try to safeguard your privacy the experience you get compared to others is often degraded..”

This coupled with other challenges like if you use a specific service “you’ve got no choice but to accept the terms and conditions.

“These terms and conditions might be that you’ll be tracked and monitored.”

It then becomes a matter of choosing privacy or accessibility. A difficult decision in this booming internet age – but at least the experts have our back.

If you want to hear more from Mr Damien Manuel about the world of cyber security, check out our podcast ‘Change One Thing’ to hear more about his humble beginnings in a hacker collective to becoming Deakin University’s Director of Cyber Security Research and Innovation.

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