The digital quest for normalcy: how social distancing is shaking up privacy, security and opportunity

James Shepperd

During the short pause brought by Easter weekend, many of us had a few moments to reflect on a world transformed by the renewed rush towards digitalization (on the back of the coronavirus). As the most retro member of the content team, my thoughts turned straight to privacy concerns, not necessarily big brother, just what we are prepared to “give away” in order to feel normal again. These thoughts meshed well with next week’s Privacy Awareness week, May 4th – 10th.  That they asked me, Mr. Retro to pursue this topic says something interesting about the moment we all find ourselves in. You know, when what’s normal is everything but business as usual.

Choosing me – Perhaps they meant for me to balance out the pitfalls of having a “tech solution for everything” voice getting written all over these blogs with some of my old-school flare? But as the author, there is pressure on me to do this topic justice, to explore what’s really coming our way (digitally speaking) and how cybersecurity plays a role in it – most importantly, to look out for how “we, the people” can balance our personal and working lives, privacy and security, and, now more than ever, opportunity.

That balance is subjective and personal. What may be more secure (for example, for a company or a government) can be less private (for the employee or the citizen). To flip this on its head, transparency could become critical to opportunity; there are reports that governments are considering issuing certificates of immunity from the coronavirus, entitling holders to increased “freedoms.” While much research remains to be done on acquired immunity via COVID-19 antibodies, knowing someone’s status could certainly greatly influence his or her social and economic mobility.

Care – After having and keeping one’s livelihood it’s likely the biggest stressor these days. since nobody wants to fall ill or have a need for a resource that’s hard to access. So, let’s talk doctors, retirement homes, and eventually, daycare centers and kindergartens too. I don’t want to get too exhaustive, but things are changing, and fast. Even with temporary social distancing regulations – let’s be conservative and say six months to a year – people will increasingly have to rely on digital communication to replace in-person “business.”

Doctors and their support staff, already hard-pressed, will turn to telemedicine to help address shortfalls in coverage – we are talking patient visits and shrink sessions. These telemedicine consultations will spawn electronic documentation that will push doctor and patient further toward e-health as standard practice. These moves will likely outstrip or, at best, expose the current limits of HIPAA’s reach and will test communications systems and users’ appetites for balancing privacy and security. Retirement homes, serving our most vulnerable, could provide another view of this journey, introducing digital contact to a population seldomly acquainted with virtual communications and tech.

Across the board, communication platforms and processes will need to address security challenges: specifically, logins and authentication, and encrypting (data/information) the outputs of those interactions, be they medical records, doctors’ orders, prescriptions, billing, or communication between family members, care providers or lawyers (for example: writing wills or powers of attorney).

Education – Whether in school or home schooled, the role of e-learning is hotly debated. While debate may continue, the necessity of providing continuity by digital means is now woven into the fabric of education systems the world over. With many already running purpose-built online education management platforms, like the popular EduPage in Europe or Alma in the U.S., to more recent mass ad hoc use of B2B conferencing or collaboration solutions like Cisco Webex or MS Teams, education will be further transformed by our need to stay apart – that is inevitable.

Long-standing resistance to full or partial homeschooling and online learning for school-age children is also closer to becoming a moot point. Classes and support will have digital and home-based components; discussion on the shape of future virtual or hybrid systems may wait, but e-schooling’s time has come.

Put another way, the question is not when this can be done but how securely this can be done. Routine things, from assigning homework to more private matters like sending grades, transcripts or behavioral reports, immediately fall into “personal information.” With the majority of students being minors, it will be even more necessary to secure and protect personally identifying information and data produced in the course of education programming. Think General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on steroids.

And what of “facts”? The scourge of fake news and hoaxes will be a challenge. Historically, the state took a large role in setting national curricula, in some cases even producing official materials. However, in this liminal period, in between what was and what will be, the door is potentially open to non-sanctioned perspectives, materials and even abuse. The answer here will be more education. Critically, cybersecurity education should be formalized and added to national curricula.

Commerce & Entertainment – Like it or not, many “legacy” business models, already high and dry in 2018, glimpsed their ends in 2019. The buzz had shifted to the latest and greatest movie streaming services and saw music streaming services basically battle among themselves for market share. Retail shifted toward further domination by mega online retailers like Amazon, AliExpress and Alibaba who, in 2020, broadened their offerings from movies and cloud services to further honing their supply chain management. This included Amazon’s foray into checkout-free grocery stores enabled by heavy use of facial recognition technology. To cap these developments off, it is expected that Amazon will report quarterly earnings that translate to $10,000 USD per second.

Another measure of these changes has been the blossoming of e-sports and virtual sports, which are putting up serious numbers in terms of media coverage and prize money. We also saw cyclists and runners moving in droves to immersive virtual training platforms like Zwift, TheSufferfest and TrainerRoad.

Putting the popular platforms and apps aside, these relatively new business models and services were already experiencing steady uptake and growth prior to the global lockdown. The aforementioned virtual sports training platforms like Zwift now have a thermonuclear boom on their hands, with social distancing and near curfew conditions across much of Europe impacting how people can get their endorphin fix. Even pro cyclists, with the first half of their season confirmed canceled, have joined Zwift for virtual versions of fans’ favorite races and to continue to train in hopes of a return to normalcy.

If we draw any symbolism from professional athletes taking their training and racing to digital platforms, a luxury first popularized by their fans, then we can conclude that, at present, many areas of our lives already have digital counterparts just waiting for users to “walk in.”

Conclusion – So if both arguable luxuries like sports and fitness can be reproduced online, and necessities like schools and medicine are flocking there too, maybe a pessimistic Gen Xer like myself can just about visualize where we might be in a few months’ time.

Regardless of how far we are forced (by circumstance), or choose, to further digitize our lives, one thing is certain: that in order to make it as painless as possible, securing the digital interface with our physical lives is crucial. Why? Because, like it or not, one has become critical to the other. Within our cybersecurity lies our privacy, and in fact, access to the lives we’ve led until now.

Most of the tools and technologies that can keep us safe and secure are already in place. There’s encryption to make data theft more difficult and too expensive to profit from. There is multifactor authentication to make sure you, and you alone, are accessing critical accounts, data or communications, and there are multilayered security technologies, largely driven by vendors including ESET, that monitor, detect, flag and block hundreds of thousands of threats daily.

Certainly, the weak link is us, the human factor. Our personal security-mindedness and awareness of risks and consequences just aren’t enough without the technologies and tools to securely interact in the digital world. These changes will take us all beyond how to protect ourselves, our businesses and our work. They speak directly to how we access opportunity, identity and self-expression.