Given recent breaches and the activity surrounding the regulation and usage of data, there is one important aspect to our online lives that is being overlooked, and that is the role of trust in our relationships.
Trust and trustworthiness go hand in hand. Trust has been defined as a relationship between a trustor and a trustee. A trustor shows ‘the willingness to be vulnerable to another party’  and has a confident expectation  that the trustee will not take advantage of this vulnerability. Trustworthiness is the complement to trust, whereby the relationship between the two parties is predicated upon the trustee being (literally) worthy of trusting. Trustworthiness means that the trustee will work on behalf of the trustor to fulfil their confident expectation without taking advantage of the vulnerability of the trustor by acting in an opportunistic manner.
Why does this matter?
Many people are under the impression that trust is not necessary in the digital age, that it is somehow a quaint relic of a bygone age, where people would stop and talk in the street, or waste their hours away politely maintaining unnecessary social contacts and exchanging calling cards.
Modern computer and business systems echo this attitude and are busy side-lining trust. End to End encryption, Zero Trust networks, the rise of Bitcoin and the adoption of Blockchain cover for the lack of interpersonal trust by implementing ever stronger encryption algorithms, and in the process consume ever greater amounts of intelligence, compute power and electricity. In a world in which data is mathematically protected we should feel more secure. But we don’t.
The role of trust in our lives
In thinking of the co-dependency of trust and trustworthiness that makes up trusting behaviour it is helpful to think of the trustor as being a diver, and of the trustee as being the springboard off which he or she is diving.
The strength and flexibility of the springboard allows the individual to rely on the trustees capabilities to reach ever higher goals. This is because the diver uses the springboard to reduce the risks of not getting enough height or leverage. Trusting is the original risk management methodology. Choosing a trusted partner means we do not have to consider the risks because we have belief in the other party. The trustor benefits from reducing the number of possible risks, by not having to check and calculate the likelihood of being let down, and by achieving outcomes (that triple back somersault) that would not previously been possible.
The benefits cut both ways. The springboard, our trusted partner, in showing they can enable one person to achieve their goals can show that they can be relied upon, to be trusted to help the aspirations of others.
To bring this back to the real world, trust helps to minimise risk for individuals and empowers them to rise to challenges and possibilities. Where the possibilities do not exist, trust creates them . For organisations, helping individuals to fix their vulnerabilities is one of the reasons they sell us products. The other is to develop a relationship over time that grows the profits and capabilities of the company.
A bank, for example, would develop a trusted lifetime relationship with an individual that would grow from school banking, to current account, to mortgage to retirement savings products. Nurturing and supporting that customer relationship is not only healthy for the company, it empowers the self-actualisation of the customer.
Encrypted protocols for communication and storage are essential for the conduct of transactional behaviour in all situations online. This includes buying and selling things, online banking and services precisely because the trustor is displaying a vulnerability to the trustee, this could be credit card details, medical conditions, Tax returns and so on.
The problem is that it is not possible to have a fully encrypted relationship with another party, because there needs to be a history of interaction on which to grow and deepen that relationship. The trustee needs to be able to use confidentiality to know how best to support the trustor to resolve their problem. A bank may have to data share with other banks to provide a service, or a doctor may have to consult with other doctors to provide a diagnosis, all of which require professional tact and confidentiality, not encryption. In short, to provide a trustworthy service to others privacy is required.
Judicious data sharing with the interests of the individual uppermost make privacy an essential component of trust – that risk sharing mechanism that allows individuals to grow and thrive.
Amid the recent Facebook data privacy breach and recognition that “there may soon be no digital privacy left”  then this deals a very serious blow to the aspirations, social mobility and empowerment of individuals as well as the reputations of the companies that seek to trade trustworthiness for profit. It may transpire that those people who guard their privacy closely are the trustworthy ones after all.
- Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H. and Schoorman, F.D., 1995. An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of management review, 20(3), pp.709-734.
- Rousseau, D.M., Sitkin, S.B., Burt, R.S. and Camerer, C., 1998. Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Academy of management review, 23(3), pp.393-404.
- Barbalet, J., 2009. A characterization of trust, and its consequences .Theory and society, 38(4), pp.367-382.