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What Would Happen If All Personal Data Leaked at Once?

Illustration for article titled What Would Happen If All Personal Data Leaked at Once?
Illustration: Elena Scotti/Photos: Shutterstock
Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

Subconsciously, on some level, we’re all waiting for it: the leak that wrecks society and confirms what we all know already, namely that the mass transfer of our inmost secrets/shames to Facebook, Google, et. al. was never not going to end in flames. Who among us will emerge looking halfway human, let alone “good,” when all of the data leaks—every text, email, voice memo? Probably one or two freaks, but the rest of us are screwed. Or are we? What conditions would obtain, exactly, in a world of total transparency? What customs, courtesies, attitudes? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.

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Fred Fineberg

Professor and Chair of Marketing and Professor of Statistics at University of Michigan, whose research examines how people make choices in uncertain environments

There are two fairly different levels involved, interpersonal (how it would affect individual relationships) and societal (how attitudes and practices might shift). And both short-term and longer-term aspects. The short-term ones are fairly predictable: there would be firings, divorces, losses-of-face, arrests—for revelations of embezzlements, abuses, and worse—threats of lawsuits against hackers and hackees, and of course massive disclosure of hypocrisy. All those people piously proscribing Behavior X while stealthily partaking in it would be called out, which may not be such a bad thing. But the so-called Privacy Paradox, where people go from horrified to outraged to background-unsettled to “whatevs” in a matter of days or weeks, would surely kick in, and life would return to The New Normal for nearly everyone. People expecting seismic reactions to the disclosure of some Deep Secret have been both relieved and disappointed when it’s instead greeted with yawns or “color me shocked,” since others suspected all along, or simply want to get back to their own inner lives.

The longer-term aspects are harder to calibrate. When something happens to literally everyone, a we’re-all-in-this-together mentality kicks in, and collective demands for greater security will be met by the market with frustrating layers of dual authentication, Martian passwords, and other impediments to seamless commerce. Or perhaps the biometric authentication dotting the nightmares of conspiracy theorists, local militia types, and, legitimately, the ACLU. But it may also help society realize that some of the behaviors it tells us we need to hide and be ashamed of are fairly widespread and, if not necessarily harmless, victimless. In living memory, things like being gay or using marijuana could ruin your life or even land you in jail. And today neighborhood kids march in the Pride Parade as it snakes past the cannabis dispensary. All of this came about due to countless acts of both personal bravery and unintentional disclosure, so there’s reason to believe a one-shot “extinction event” level leak would cause an avalanche of short-term panic, but also some longer-term positive transformations.

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Tessa West

Associate Professor, Psychology, New York University, whose research focuses on understanding the nature and dynamics of social perception

Almost everyone has an internet secret. Perhaps you’ve engaged in a little light cyber stalking of a recent ex, or developed an out-of-control shopping habit. Maybe you have a fetish that your current partner is completely unaware of, the evidence of which can only be found in your stored porn preferences. Revealing these secrets would be pretty damn embarrassing. But what about the more serious ones? The secrets so sensitive that if revealed could result in a lawsuit, a divorce, or getting fired from your job? Despite the costs of discovery, most of us don’t worry too much about our internet secrets getting out. We reason that with a good system of unpredictable passwords and some careful monitoring, we are safe from discovery. This is silly of course. Data get hacked and revealed all of the time.

What would happen if one day, we all woke up to find that with a quick search, you could unlock anyone’s data? Would we immediately search the histories of the people closest to us in our lives? Probably not. The first thing we would do is search ourselves. And that’s because human beings are pretty self-centered. We think that everyone around us is thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to search Tessa West to see what she’s been up to.” Social scientists call this the spotlight effect. It’s the belief that other people are paying more attention to us than they actually are. We would all be so concerned about the fallout of our secrets that we would focus entirely on ourselves, on our own search histories, before we focused on anyone else’s.

The next thing we would probably do is read clickbait stories about famous people and their dirty secrets. Famous people are much more interesting to read about than our aging neighbor, the guy who runs the hardware store, or our boring college professor. And everyone loves a little schadenfreude—that feeling you get when someone who seems to have it all falls flat on their ass. Dirty celebrity secrets will be the perfect antidote to the shame and anxiety we are feeling about our own.

Would we eventually get around to searching the histories of those closest to us? Perhaps, but not without a lot of mental preparation. When it comes to those we love and care about, we have a positivity bias that sustains us through rough times. If your partner is being rude or aloof at a party, you excuse the behavior as “he’s just tired.” Maybe you catch him flirting with the new hire at work. You tell yourself he’s just being friendly. And it turns out, seeing those you love through rose colored glasses is actually a good thing for relationships (within reason). How many of us are willing to have our world views completely shattered? Not many. It would take a few glasses of wine and some strong social support for most of us to go down that path.

The most interesting question from this thought experiment is, what would happen to society—would it become less judgy, more accepting of deviant behaviors? Probably not. There are all sorts of behaviors that despite being incredibly common, are still frowned down upon (like lying, which occurs in about 1 in every 5 social interactions). Finger pointing and judging would still rule, at least temporarily. Maybe it would provide us with a great opportunity to be more honest with each other. To teach us that the things we are into, the things we hide, aren’t so weird after all. In fact, a quick search could reveal that half of the people that live on your block have the same porn settings on their computer as you do.

Giovanni Vigna 

Professor, Computer Science, University of California in Santa Barbara, whose research focuses on vulnerability analysis, web security, malware analysis, and the security of mobile platforms in collaboration with:

Shellphish group

A team of hackers at UCSB led by Vigna

There would probably be three phases.

Phase one: Everybody goes crazy! Many factors are important in this phase. For example, how is the leaked information distributed? If it’s a single, large file, the simple act of finding information in it would be a daunting task.

If, by some magic, the information is actually indexed (that is, it can be searched) the service would be immediately subject to a major Denial-of-Service, caused by the billions of queries immediately performed by every human being, trying to find what’s being disclosed about them, and what their previous partners said about their relationship. For sure there will be many embarrassing conversations, denials, and, sadly, many suicides.

Phase two: Everything stops. Since all the financial secrets (e.g., your bank account PIN) are disclosed, the financial system will come to a grinding halt. Similarly, other systems would be immediately shut down to prevent abuse (think about voting).

Phase three: A new dawn. At this point, almost every human on the planet will be busy re-establishing their identity, their financial information, their crypto keys, etc. In this phase, it will be clear that there are two types of information: the information that can be made invalid (e.g., the password to one’s Gmail account, since it can be changed), and the information that cannot be made invalid (e.g., the fact that you sent a text to meet your mistress while your wife was taking care of your baby). The way in which the former type of information will be reset depends on the nature of the breach: Can the breach happen again? If the answer is yes, then we will need completely new protocols, mechanisms, techniques, and policies to guarantee security and privacy. It’s something that we do not know how to do (well) at the moment. It would take time, and, in the meantime, society as we know would likely disappear.

If another breach is not likely to happen, then the system will slowly reset, but the world will keep feeling new jolts, as critical, damning, unexpected information is disclosed.

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Michael Slepian

Associate Professor, Leadership and Ethics, Columbia Business School, who studies the psychology of secrets and runs the Keeping Secrets project

In our research we find that, on average, people hold about 13 secrets at a time. Secrets about our relationships, finances, embarrassments, desires, and transgressions are common, and everyone has had a secret at some point in time, if not many. So what would happen if everyone’s data leaked at once? What if every website visit, every purchase, and every medical question typed into Google was suddenly made public? All of a sudden, collectively we might agree that 13 is very much an underestimate. Of the mountain of data that we consider private, there will be many areas with jagged edges we’d prefer remain hidden. What would our friends, family, spouses, coworkers, and bosses think? Would everyone get fired, divorced, and defriended? I don’t think so. You’d be safe for a while. Everyone you know will be too busy sifting through their own data before having a chance to look at yours. When we start getting around to looking at others’ data (and others looking at ours), there would be a lot of surprises, for sure, but if such a major event happened to every person, with no person spared, I think it would unite us more than cause relational damage. While people feel alone with their secrets, no person truly is. That’s one of the things we fail to realize when we keep a secret. By keeping a secret, you may also be closing the door on potential help, guidance, and support. Sharing secrets with others is a way to get help with those secrets. A massive universal data leak would be the ultimate revelation and it would also reveal the many secrets we already share and have in common.

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Art Markman

Professor of Psychology, Human Dimensions of Organizations, and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin, Executive Director of the IC^2 Institute, and author of several books including Smart Thinking and Bring Your Brain to Work

Secrets are a version of what is called an “information asymmetry.” Basically, information asymmetries are any situation in which one person knows something another does not. Secrets happen when someone deliberately creates an information asymmetry by hiding information. The ability to keep secrets is actually essential for human interaction. Not everyone wants or needs to know your opinion of everything all the time. I may not like the shirt you’re wearing, but that shouldn’t cause awkwardness in our interaction on a given day. We manage what we reveal to other people in ways that often make social interactions better. And, of course, a good surprise party requires a certain amount of secrecy.

In addition, some secrets are good. If I am trying to create a new business, I don’t want to reveal all the details of my idea until I have had a chance to develop it to the point where I can create a company and (potentially) make money on it. In a world in which all information was available all the time, the largest and wealthiest organizations would have the ability to develop new ideas fastest, and so the rich would get richer. It is only by allowing people to keep trade secrets that we allow new players to enter markets and to disrupt them.

Of course, any tool that has positive influences can have negative ones as well. People do use information asymmetries to their advantage in ways that hurt others. I think we’re better off in a world where information asymmetries exist than in ones where they don’t.

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DISCUSSION

Locksmith-of-Love
Locksmith-of-Love

this presumes that it would be organize in any sort of manner. if everyone had 100gb of information, but unorganized, that information would only be useful for people that knew what to look for.

but i have always been interested in what would happen if there was not a one time exposure, but if everything was exposed and remained open for anyone. no privacy, but total freedom of accessability for everyone by everyone.

but since we live in a late-capitalistic society, another fun idea would be that we had near total privacy, but also total control over marketing that information. right now it is being hoarded, concentrated, or just generally wasted because they do not know what to do with it. i wish i had more of a stake in the information that i put out there, give me my percentage, dammit! :D