Tom Chatfield: The age of risk-free internet use may be coming to an end

Tuesday 14 December 2010 01:00

With every new hack, we are a little less impressed. When over a million Gawker user accounts were compromised, and hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts started spewing adverts for a diet relying on acai berries, users registered the inconvenience, changed their passwords, and life went on. This wasn't WikiLeaks or government secrets, after all. The digital world is just a little older and wiser. Or is there more to it than this?

Digital identity may not be on the same level as diplomatic cables, but it's a serious business. With an increasingly important component of many lives playing out across social networks – which connect close to a billion people across the world – and via online consumption, sharing and commenting, the hijacking of any part of this personal jigsaw is both an intense emotional blow and an assault on assets with a growing real-world value.

In a world where an inappropriate photo uploaded on Facebook can cost you your job, or a tongue-in-cheek Tweet can mean criminal prosecution, it's clear that the notion of a clean division between "real" and "virtual" spheres no longer applies. This has made privacy and data security vital issues.

Beyond this, though, are larger cultural questions: how and where do people feel confident in expressing themselves, and free to build an identity?

One message the WikiLeaks affair has broadcast is the power of digital records to damn those who create them. Vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with the communicative potential of new media. It's only what you haven't written down and recorded that can't hurt you.

The post-WikiLeaks political world will be a more paranoid and a more old-fashioned one: more reliant on personal meetings, phone-calls, even written messages; less promiscuous with networking and digital recordings.

But high-profile events like the Gawker hack suggest that some aspects of social life, too, may experience a paradoxical pressure towards the offline, old-school realm where authenticity can be guaranteed and discretion expected, and no records kept.

Platform security and privacy concerns are entering the mainstream where once they were the preserve of a tech-savvy minority. The firewalls are starting to go up: around governments and corporations, but also around individuals. Already, the humble text message is a more important social instrument than email thanks to its greater security, specificity, convenience and relative immunity to the clogging forces of spam.

As our online activities play a steadily increasing part in determining what we and the world conceives of as "us", it seems inevitable that we will become both more discerning and more paranoid digital citizens. After the last few weeks, this process may have taken another leap forward.

Tom Chatfield is author of "Fun Inc" (Virgin)

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