Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Let’s talk about privacy. But not online security.

Laura Mazzoni’s recent op-ed in The New York Times is the most obvious expression yet of a controversial new approach to Internet communication. As of next week, Twitter and other social networks will allow users to activate two-factor authentication when logging in, requiring users to enter either a numeric password and a one-time code sent to their phone. Instead of having just their username and password, you’ll also need to have one of these codes delivered to you. The idea is that people will now feel as if they’re logging in as separate parties. As the Pew Research Center reported in October of 2016, “the majority of Internet users think these kinds of two-factor authentication make it harder to communicate electronically with someone they’re not in a relationship with.”

Mazzoni doesn’t believe that’s so. Because “even though you are ‘seeing’ someone and having a two-way conversation,” she says, “this isn’t an intimate, real-time relationship.” Mazzoni is the co-founder of Jigsaw, a tech incubator funded by Eric Schmidt and also called Moonshot. So far, Facebook is the only major network that supports two-factor authentication. But other networks, such as WhatsApp, may be on the way. As for Twitter, “we’re going to leave things to the market to determine the best path forward for ourselves,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The New York Times.

The question of whether a two-factor authentication system can undermine — or even halt — the proliferation of online sexual relationships, however, remains in question. Personally, I believe these technologies can be used to protect users, which sounds like a fancy way of saying that I think they can save us from ourselves. Others are more skeptical. Lesley Riddoch, author of the new book Wanting (Hyperion), notes that the greatest threats we face online today are not our own worries or paranoia — but instead are human ones. “The great danger posed by such technologies to our privacy and human beings in general is the idea that we as people are so completely random and unpredictable as a collection of social vulnerabilities,” she writes. “The idea of who we are, what we will do, who we think we should do it with, and how we should do it, depend on our desire to create something truly unique and also we desire to be equal as human beings to those we surround ourselves with online.” As Riddoch admits, she “also admits that really forging an intimate connection with someone online” is neither realistic nor, as a result, worthwhile.

The fact is, humans live in a world that has both pros and cons to it. We crave and expect—indeed we require—social connections, for better or worse. But that social connection doesn’t necessarily mean we’re more loyal to those we trust; on the contrary, “today’s digital environment rewards the people we like—often judging us and assessing our potential for betrayal by what other people like us to be.” So what’s the answer? We can all either try to be omniscient as tools of course; we can try to establish what Riddoch calls “affinity bonds” with others; or we can go back to the very basics of being human: “There is, in fact, the expectation that we have needs, desires, and special relationships to keep us safe from ourselves.” We know that when we’re alone, or at least feel like it, we develop vulnerabilities—and our very self-worth is at stake. But when we develop relationships online, we take what Mazzoni says about them all too seriously. “When we give up our relationships to a computer,” she writes, “we give up our capacity to feel pain, surprise, love, anxiety, or anxiety about our online interactions.”

Contact Anna-Kaisa Butts at [email protected]

Related

The Salty Cuban criticizes two-factor authentication systems

Facebook wants to send you a code before logging in

Jigsaw is a Google project dedicated to artificial intelligence

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