Security and the Cool Factor

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Computer literacy is something we take for granted nowadays. Smartphones, social media, Microsoft Office – these are now basic aspects of day-to-day life for many of us. Children born today will grow up in a digital-centric world where computing skills are as integral as the ability to read and write.

It’s easy to forget that this was not always the case. In fact, widespread computer literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon that has developed as a result of the rise of computers in the workplace and in schools.

But there’s another crucial element that has influenced the rapid and all-encompassing integration of technology into daily life – the ‘cool factor’. Marketing and advertising have been crucial in driving the fervent uptake, interest in, and daily use of PCs, smartphones, tablets and other computers since the millennium.

Imagine, 15 years ago, chatting to a friend or colleague who wasn’t especially interested in technology:

You: “I downloaded this great alternate browser to IE last night, I can’t believe people use that piece of crap that comes bundled with Windows…”

Friend: *Bemused stare*

You: “There’s this new site I’ve found, it lets you connect and communicate with other web users – except you can only use 140 characters at a time, and there are all these hashes and tags, like a weird separate language in a way…”

Friend: “Huh?”

You: “I was thinking how cool it would be if my watch would receive calls and texts and track my fitness.”

Friend: “What are you talking about? Watches are for telling the time!”

Today, that person’s responses might be very different. In 2015, using Chrome or Firefox is the rule rather than the exception, people’s grandparents tweet, and the Apple Watch is expected to sell more than 5 million units in its initial run. A time traveler from Y2K might shocked at how far ‘geekery’ has taken hold.

Except it’s no longer considered geeky to be interested in technology. Far from it.

Effective marketing by tech companies has given their products an unmistakable aura of cool. Knowing the exact name, model and specs of a computer was once the domain of geeks; nowadays it’s not unusual to hear your coolest friends talking tech. 

"‘Safety first’ has never been a glamorous mantra"

Which mobile OS is best, the pros and cons of Windows 8, which content streaming services to subscribe to: these are all socially acceptable things to chat about over coffee or dinner.

But despite this, not all the basic aspects of using computers have achieved the cool factor.

Imagine saying to a friend or colleague in the year 2000: “People just don’t take their online security seriously enough; I mean, I change my password every two weeks and it’s full of unusual characters. Hackers are totally exploiting the fools who don’t.”

Now imagine that conversation in 2015. Would the response be all that different? Would it elicit more than a yawn or a raised eyebrow?

Security practice and products still lack appeal, despite how fundamental they are to the technology we enjoy using every day. Security needs to find its cool factor. When so many people seem happy to leave a trail of their personal data, banking details and GPS locations scattered across the internet or stored unencrypted on personal devices, it’s crucial that security enters the picture.

But how can we achieve this? It sounds like a difficult task. After all, ‘safety first’ has never been a glamorous mantra. But there are plenty of things that were once considered geek territory that are now in vogue.

In making security seem cool, the first steps may have already been made with biometric authentication on mobile devices. Fingerprinting, retina scanners and facial recognition are classic hallmarks of spy and action movies – and one can always rely on the power of the silver screen to influence the world of cool.

Some security commentators remain skeptical about biometrics – it’s costly to implement, and not flawless by any means. However, if we want to see society at large adopt a more safety-conscious approach, it will be the tech giants, not the computer security industry that influences the change.

The cool factor cannot be underestimated, and if biometrics is where Apple, Google and others want to go, it’s pretty much guaranteed that consumers will follow. It could be a crucial first step towards a more security-conscious future.

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