We’ve written before on the many issues surrounding online privacy, but the topic remains one of utmost importance to the IT industry as well as the general public. In fact, as technology infiltrates every corner of our lives, the question of digital privacy will manifest in the physical world as well as online.

On the 20th of November, Amnesty International released Detekt, a free security program that goes far deeper than standard anti-virus software. Detekt has been specifically designed to detect spyware commonly used by governments to monitor activists and political opponents, with scanning protocols so intense that computers are rendered inoperable while the software is running. The attempt has been praised by security experts, although they question whether Amnesty International will be able to keep the software up to date without full-time technical expertise.

On the same day, it was revealed that a Russian-based website is hosting thousands of live feeds from hacked webcams around the world, more than five hundred of which originate in the UK. The address of the website has not been widely published in the media for fear of driving traffic to the site and encouraging further hacking activity, but the security breaches observed affect webcams, baby monitors, and even external CCTV.

These two events summarise, in microcosm, the constant back-and-forth between security experts and individuals or organisations that aim to compromise our online privacy. It is a continuous and ongoing war, and it is not yet apparent which side will come out on top. With this in mind, it is worth posing the question of whether privacy is possible at all, at least without adversely affecting the use of online services and software. The answer, arguably, is no.

Whenever we make use of third-party applications and services, we generate data. That data is then used by the third-party software to provide whatever service it is that a user requests, be that Facebook, Gmail or Twitter. As soon as we make use of anything outside an offline system, our privacy is compromised and in the hands of whomever we have just sent our data to: it’s why the data protection act exists, amongst many other digital litanies that most of us have never read. In theory, the system works, but it depends on everyone playing by the rules – and, of course, they don’t.

There are few answers to the privacy problems of the 21st century. Encryption is a common measure, but is not infallible and certainly not feasible at the complex levels necessary to truly render our data secure beyond all reach of ne’er-do-wells.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Philosophical questions about the possibility of absolute privacy aside, the majority of us are safe, and some of the best minds in the industry work day in day out to ensure security measures are up to scratch. Just don’t open any suspicious-looking emails – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – and you can browse in peace.

Image courtesy of Yuri Samoilov