Getting emotional about online privacy

If we are able to connect viscerally and emotionally to our security and privacy online, we might be more prone to protect our digital lives.
If we are able to connect viscerally and emotionally to our security and privacy online, we might be more prone to protect our digital lives. (REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski )

Most of us find ways of separating our feelings towards privacy in our everyday lives from our privacy online. You might get home, lock the doors, close the blinds, then immediately let the whole world in when you open your laptop.

Somehow we haven't transferred that visceral, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck creepiness of being watched, into our lives online. And it's not just individuals who treat their digital lives as something different than their "real" lives. The law also sees them as something separate.

Todd Weaver is the founder and CEO of Purism, a hardware company that builds security and privacy-minded devices.

Todd Weaver is the founder and CEO of Purism, a company that builds hardware from the ground up with security in mind.

"Everybody has something they'd like to protect" Todd says. "And the same way in the physical world that you like to lock your door or you like to be secure in your bedroom, or that you have trespassing laws and we have anti peeping tom laws and all sorts of things that are there to protect an individual. In the digital world we just don't have any of that. And we've really just thrown it all out for the sake of convenience.

"We've had centuries of building really strong physical rights through the legal system. I mean creating laws that protect individuals. In the digital world is just new."

Todd's company sells a laptop called the Librem which, he says, "is going to protect the user by default, has encryption by default, allows for communication to others via encryption by default and strips third party trackers by default." Another interesting feature is two small switches just above the keyboard.

The Purism Librum laptop features "kill switches" to cut power to the microphone, camera, Bluetooth and WiFi. (Purism)

"On the laptops as well as on the phone, we have physical hardware kill switches," Todd says. This is a feature that makes the digital world tactile, he says. "This is a switch that you toggle when you want the webcam and microphone to be off and in that case it's like a light switch. It actually severs the circuit so that there's no way that there can be any remote access to the camera or microphone."

Another project is going a step further in trying to make people more emotionally connected to their online privacy. Leanne Wijnsma is an artist and designer in Amsterdam. Leanne created a small device she calls The Smell of Data. Rather than alerting users to potential data leaks through pop up messages and alarm sounds, The Smell of Data releases a burst of scent.

Leanne says that, "when the Smell of Data goes off there is also a tiny light.  And of course you see the cloud coming out. The little smell cloud. So I started collecting a lot of smells and making samples: brewing smells of my own kitchen etc. And so I found this smell of data. It's a completely new smell."

Leanne describes the smell as metallic, with notes of citrus. "I wanted the smell to be natural in a way so that we can trust it," she says. "But also it can't be too nice. I wanted it to smell unhealthy.

She compares it to adding an odour to the smell of natural gas following a disastrous explosion in Texas in 1937.

"And from that moment on, other countries in the world started taking that idea over. And so now we're so used to that smell. And when we smell in our kitchen we're immediately alerted and we know exactly what we do."

The Smell of Data is a small device that emits a scent when your computer or phone is leaking data. (Simone C. Niquille)

While we may eventually develop an emotional reaction to invasions of our digital privacy, like we do with invasions on our physical lives, the advancement of technology is outpacing our ability to develop those feelings on our own.

"It is much easier to just give away everything and not think about it," Leanne says. "But there are certain risks that we don't know about just yet."