Last night I was at a party sponsored by some local venture capital companies. There were lots of startup founders, tech staff, investors and such there. I found myself in a conversation with the CEO of a little company that worked as a sort of Squarespace for a large but niche category of businesses (as in, it makes and runs their websites). A VC type asked why the company hosted and ran all the site’s services but hid all its branding, and the founder gave the obvious answer.
The firm wanted to copy the data.
The precious data!
Postlight is a young product shop in New York City that builds apps, websites and other digital wonders for brands like Bloomberg and Vice. It was founded by tech industry veteran Rich Ziade and Paul Ford, a writer well known for covering tech from the perspective of someone who actually knows how to build it. They have a podcast called Track Changes, and on the way to the party above last night I listened to their latest episode, “Rich and Paul Talk Security.”
The two developers offer three big security tips, and I felt much the same way hearing two of them as I did when I read about Consumer Reports privacy manifesto. Here’s what Postlight recommends for keeping users safe:
- “If you don’t need to keep the data, don’t,” Ziade says. In other words, there’s no reason data can’t have a shelf life. If your company exists solely for the purpose of selling people fidget spinners, it probably makes sense to hold on to all your sales records for a few months while your accountants close the books, but a decade from now is it business critical to know that I bought an Incredible Hulk themed spinner? Probably not.
- “Use services that have been thinking about and fortifying themselves around security,” Ziade says, emphasizing that this is especially important if money is involved. If people are buying things on your site, its probably smart to let Square or Stripe close the deal. Protecting that data at that moment is all they do. They will do it better than you. The big difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 is that so many of the backend functions of different sites don’t have to be built from scratch anymore. Of course, each of those companies could also get hit, which is its own danger. Still, on balance, taking on well fortified partners is probably smart.
- “You can encrypt and secure information that you can’t see, but your user can,” Ford says. In other words, why not encrypt your users’ data so that only your user can see it. Did you make a cool messaging app where people send each funny GIFs? Do you really need to see what GIFs they sent each other? It’s possible to encrypt their messages with keys that sit on each other’s devices, so it sits on your databases, but you can’t read it. Ford cites a book he likes on the topic called, Translucent Databases, by Peter Wayner. “They’ll open that box and they can never read it,” Ziade emphasizes.
The consensus among security pros today is that companies should operate under the assumption that they have been breached and structure their products accordingly. That’s what makes tips one and three so good. If it’s not there to steal or not worth stealing, why would criminals try? But criminals do try, because they know it’s the rare company that would take these measures.
I was listening to this podcast on the way to this little party I mentioned, and it wasn’t long after I hit pause until I stumbled into the conversation I mentioned above, where a founder describes a company that’s gone out of its way to get its hands on data about the patrons of other people’s businesses.
To succeed, tech companies have to monetize records about strangers’ behavior (that is, data), because users will seldom pay. Selling these clues about what we like and what we do is the only way they have to make money.
Data security will remain very bad until this changes, because there is always a way in.