Protecting Your Privacy Means Understanding the Limits of Security

Whenever there is a discussion about online privacy and security, someone will inevitably – and often gleefully – post a comment about how the NSA, FBI, or Illuminati secretly knows how to exploit some obscure technical loophole and can hack right into your account whenever they want. The subtext is always the same: Don’t bother protecting your data because it is pointless in the end. And that is dead wrong.

Consider, for example, the front door to your house, which I suspect is locked right now. Of course, that lock isn’t really worth much. There are competitive lock pick champions who can open that door faster than you can find your keys. And a few swings from a SWAT-standard battering ram will have it open just as quick, albeit with a lot more noise. None of this should come as a surprise. You know that the lock on your front door provides only limited protection. But you lock it anyway – because you know that same lock does protect you and your stuff from lots of other threats, like opportunistic amateur burglars or just rowdy kids in the neighborhood.

Online security is no different (actually, it does a whole lot more to protect you than that lock on your front door). No security measures you take will be completely safe, particularly against an all-out assault by law enforcement. But taking your privacy seriously will protect you from lots of common threats. For example, two-factor authentication will protect you from a common scam where hackers trick you into revealing your password. This scam can lead to identify theft, and hours, if not years, of hassle. It may not stop the NSA – although in some cases it very well might – but just because it isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start using it right now.

So don’t let online hysteria force your head into the sand. There is an arms race between security professionals, and the government, scam artists, and malignant hackers who want your data. And the tech press will always be filled with dramatic stories of what happens when security falters. Do not be deterred – especially if the gleeful online commenter does not provide constructive suggestions on how to better protect yourself from the new exploit.


Rob Rickner is a civil rights and commercial litigation attorney at Rickner PLLC in New York City.