Identity and security: The price we must pay to keep our information safe – and the companies helping us do it

James Parton
An F/A-18 Hornet emerges from a cloud caused when it broke the sound barrier
A new boundary: A third of Brits said they're prepared to pay to protect their data (Source: Getty)

In ancient Roman mythology, Janus, the god of boundaries, is usually depicted as having two faces.

Skip a few thousand years to today’s modern world, and many of us still wear more than one mask: there’s the one we present at work, one we wear in front of family, and others we wear in front of friends. And in a world where social sharing can rapidly become over-sharing, boundaries are more important then ever.

There are several reasons we might modify our identities: a desire to present the best of ourselves, a reluctance to reveal too much, and increasingly for reasons of privacy and security.

The social media revolution has enabled hundreds of millions of us to share more about our lives, with a greater number of people, than we could ever have anticipated just a generation ago. Yet alongside the opportunities which these new technologies bring to allow us to communicate to and with a global audience, privacy and security are increasingly important considerations for consumers.

This issue has become more urgent as it has become clear that, sometimes, we are not wholly in control of what might be revealed – a single point of weakness can lead to data breaches. More than 700m records were breached in 2015 according to security researchers at Gemalto, with the United States and the UK attracting the lion’s share of the breaches.

This problem is compounded by the desirability of our data for online services and retailers. According to the Privacy in Perspective report published in 2014 by the consultancy Contagious, almost a third (30 per cent) of people surveyed in the UK and over four in ten (44 per cent) in the United States said they would be prepared to pay extra for confidentiality when buying online. Additionally a third (33 per cent) in the UK said they had abandoned a product or service due to concerns about their personal privacy.

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Significantly, millennials are almost a third (28 per cent) more likely than non-millennials to switch services due to privacy concerns, signalling a shift in attitudes amongst this demographic that is only set to increase the demand for solutions to privacy issues.

For developers, this presents an opportunity to create applications that aim to better protect identities. One example in this space is Snapchat, the mobile app that allows users to send videos and pictures, both of which will self-destruct after a few seconds of a person viewing them. Although Snapchat itself was hacked on 31 December 2013, the app’s proposition has helped it grow user numbers across the globe – and users now watch an incredible 8bn videos per day.

Another is Whisper, the anonymous social networking app whereby users post confessions, either fact or fiction, by super imposing text on a picture. What makes Whisper different from other social networking apps is the fact that users don’t have an identity when using the service and there are no followers, friends or profiles. Others in this vein include Confide, Secret, Sneeky, Backchat, Rumr, and Truth.

Anonymous messaging is one solution to the privacy problem, but often it is useful to be able to control, rather than completely conceal, your identity.

In many cases, being able to contact and contact people by phone call or text message, for example, is hugely useful but, when personal phone numbers are likely to be more permanent even than home addresses, sharing them can be a long-term risk.

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Last month, a new app launched in the UK called Sudo, which has been created by Anonyome Labs to address that issue. There are many instances where we need to make a spilt-second decision about who to trust and provide our private contact details – we might be asked for our phone number on a first date, or our email address by a contractor.

Sudo allows users to create new identities – not just a new email address, but also a completely new virtual phone number that can be used to make and receive calls and send and receive texts.

These new numbers can be given out to individuals or groups, and when they are no longer needed – or wanted – the identity can be shut down, and the person or persons with that number can no longer make contact.

This empowers users to compartmentalise their identities – for example, to have one phone number only used for business, or for selling on Etsy or Ebay – with a single phone and a single SIM card, just as Sudo’s identity-specific web browsing allows users to control what they tell sites when.

The ability to have conversations using the appropriate channel, but without keeping that channel open indefinitely, is much in demand. Services as diverse as Handy, AirBnB and Uber – all dealing with situations where sharing some information with strangers is necessary – allow people to text and call each other without either party getting access to the other’s details.

As we communicate with a growing number of people across more channels and wider distances than ever before, more of us will be using technology smartly to fit our identity and our level of exposure to our audience.

Taking control of our privacy is no longer a priority for corporates and governments alone, but one at the forefront of considerations for many of the younger generations of consumers. “Boundary issues” are considerably more complex in 2016 than Roman times, but the tools we have to manage them are more powerful as well.

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