Consumers must be power players in the hacking age, not victims
The disturbing “Vault 7” allegations put out by WikiLeaks this week have brought new light to the common fears about the vulnerability of the connected products we use every day, and they underscore the need for strong privacy protections in the digital marketplace.
 
The implications of Vault 7 may not be fully understood just yet, but one thing is clear: the digital age has given birth to a new breed of dangers—broad, insidious threats to our security, equality, and privacy made eerier by the fact that they are largely invisible to us.
 
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Long before this week’s news broke, these threats have shown up in the form of chilling hacks and security breaches that compromise everything from our cars to our credit cards to our democratic institutions.  Less visibly, the mass collection of our personal information has also quietly opened the door to profiteering and discrimination—in addition to being sold, our data can now be used to charge us more for car insurance, financial services, and ride-sharing based on factors as personal as our browsing habits.
 
 
There was a time when the gravest threats to consumers were easy enough to observe and measure: defects in our cars that led to rollovers or engine fires, toxins in our food that made us ill, and faulty products that put our families at risk, to name just a few. While those perils have not been eradicated, the digital age is giving birth to a new breed of dangers—broader, more insidious threats to our security, equality, and privacy made eerier by the fact that they are largely invisible to us.

Every day, these threats show up in the form of chilling hacks and security breaches that compromise everything from our cars to our credit cards to our democratic institutions. Less visibly, the mass collection of our personal information has also quietly opened the door to profiteering and discrimination—in addition to being sold, our data can now be used to charge us more for car insurance, financial services, and ride-sharing based on factors as personal as our browsing habits.

As consumers become inundated by marketplace noise, they are simultaneously being asked to evaluate more and more. Is it safe to use this software?  Were these product reviews bought and paid for? Are the facts I’m exposed to real or ‘alternative?’  Now more than ever, the lines are blurring around what and whom consumers can trust.

Organizations like the one I lead, Consumer Reports, have always sought to clarify those lines and reduce the noise by serving as a nonprofit, independent partner to consumers. But being a trusted partner no longer means just being an authority on products—like consumers, we must adapt to meet the challenges that are sweeping into our lives on the heels of innovation.

That’s why, at this pivotal moment for marketplace trust, we’re embarking on an ambitious effort to equip consumers with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and make informed decisions in the digital age.

Working with expert partners from the world of cybersecurity research and with consumers directly, we’re developing resources that will allow consumers to better understand how the products they use, the apps they download, and the services they rely on treat their personal data. With an ultimate goal of being able to score the connected items we use every day on criteria related to security, privacy, and data usage, our aim is to put consumers in the driver’s seat, empowering them to steer clear of digital vulnerabilities, safeguard their equality, and make choices that bend the marketplace toward better outcomes.

That work begins with the creation of a digital standard—the first iteration of which is now available for open collaboration and comment at TheDigitalStandard.org. This standard will be used to assess risks in the security and privacy of connected products and apps, allowing Consumer Reports and others to test, evaluate, and report on how responsibly our personal information is being handled. Additionally, the standard will be used as a preemptive tool to encourage industry to design and release more secure software to the marketplace.

Of course, rapid cycles of innovation, constant software updates, and ‘smart’ products that entangle themselves with our personal data have made our lives easier—but they have also made it harder than ever for us to protect ourselves against infiltration and abuse. In an age when everything from our baby monitors to our fitness trackers can be hacked to mine our private information, this standard will help ensure that consumers have the ability to safeguard themselves and assert their rights.

Technology has transformed our lives and brought us opportunities once thought possible only in science fiction. But until every consumer knows how their data is being collected, when, by whom, and for what purposes, they will be pawns, not power players, in the digital marketplace. Now more than ever, consumers need information they can trust absolutely—and we believe that the tools can be built to help restore that trust.

In the years to come, freedom will be defined by our ability to make meaningful choices in the marketplace and control our own data. Ensuring that freedom won’t be easy, but it will be essential if we want to ensure that the values we share—fairness, personal privacy, and equality of access and opportunity—will thrive in the digital age.

Marta Tellado is president and chief executive officer of Consumer Reports.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.