Planet Mars, Curiosity, and Data Security


For those captivated by recent events in astronomy, parallels can be drawn between the recent landing of NASA’s rover Curiosity on planet Mars and the public discourse on data security in Canada. With the distinction that one is effectively equipped with the right budget and tools to achieve its actual objective, both have come a very long way, both have managed to blaze through layers of clouds, both seek to secure ingredients essential to life, and both are now aimlessly wandering about unchartered territories.

A decisive factor in Barrack Obama’s 2008 political campaign was the extensive use of individual, thin sliced consumer data to send highly tailored messages to gain political support. Within 13 years, Google has become the most valuable brand in the world through the aggregation of vast amounts of data including search data, or data held in Gmail accounts. This information is then used to create an advertising cruise missile, which is much more efficient than the old method of pattern bombing.

Before going to war against Iraq for the second time, thousands of Iraqi military officers received tailored e-mails on the secret Iraqi Defense Ministry e-mail system, causing many Iraqi officers and their troops to go on “leave of absence” before the U.S. started its own cruise missile campaign. In other words, be it controlling ideologies and political thinking or monopolizing sectors of the market through information asymmetry, behind every data breach there is the potential for a greater harm than that which is often spoken of in the media. In short, data breaches have the potential of affecting core democratic institutions; privacy is the only protective layer.

Causes for data breaches have been attributed to malicious attacks, negligent insiders, system glitches, and lost, stolen, or compromised technologies such as USB keys, laptops, cloud services, mobile phones, and external hard drives. As technologies become more complex and diversified, transparency is reduced, and the risk of human error and data breaches is increased. Data breaches are occurring in every industry sector: financial, retail, healthcare, services, education, technology, manufacturing, transportation, consumer, hotels, leisure, entertainment, marketing, pharmaceutical, communications, research, energy and defense. In 2011, the average organizational cost of a data breach in the U.S. was estimated at $5,501,888.00. The average per capita cost of a data breach was $194. The average size of a data breach was approximately 28,349 records. Whether these numbers increase or decrease in the near future will depend on the growth in public awareness of not only the direct cost of data breaches, such as notification and legal defense costs against class actions, but also of the more serious and indirect costs to society.

Curiously, the least discussed yet most concerning issue surrounding data security isn’t the multiplicity of ways data can be breached, or even the damaging financial consequences such breaches may pose for companies but rather the lack of awareness of the consequences compromised data poses to the functioning of democratic information societies. (Those who remain in the dark about their organization’s financial risk exposure would be well advised to visit Symantec’s data breach risk calculator at The consequences are severe and run very deep in a system that was not designed with modern technologies in mind. To say the least, data breaches have the potential of affecting everything from free and competitive markets, security, sovereignty, and democracy.

For the most part, however, privacy commissioners as well as the media have directed the public debate towards the tip of the iceberg in the data privacy/security debate, with the result of soft legislative provisions reflecting a misinformed public.

Not clear? Consider the issue from a different angle. What is the most effective way of developing a child’s cognitive abilities? By telling the child that cognition is important, or by presenting the child with a highly valuable concrete object and asking the child to provide one good reason as to why he or she should be entitled to hold the object. Unfortunately, nothing about data breaches is visible or concrete. Other than the old identify theft and secure your financial information rhetoric, little is understood about the true value of data. In discussing the implications of the recent data breach of Election Ontario, for instance, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner vaguely alluded to the “possibility for identity theft and other deceptive practices”.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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