Across tech and retail, big companies have been the target of big, successful attacks: Skype and Snapchat, Target (TGT) and Neiman Marcus, and at least three other prominent retailers, according to Reuters, suffered recent breaches. The season's climate of fear intensified this month as hacking rumors dogged cloud-storage site Dropbox, some of whose users experienced up to two-day-long outages.
And as media outlets never tire of saying, this "may only be the beginning." USA Today warns that retail hacks could "surge" this year. Fox Business raises the specter of a "new phase" of hacking. Even Xbox's own Twitter (TWTR) and Instagram accounts aren't safe.
As we know, panics can really shake up markets. But when it comes to personal data, are we entering a into "new phase" of nonchalance? Are consumers starting to shrug off hacking and online leaks? There are at least five good reasons why we may get to that point a lot sooner than you might think.
1. Consumers are getting used to it.
Remember the LinkedIn leaks? Russian hackers posted some 6.5 million LinkedIn (LNKD) user passwords in 2012. Despite concerns, the attack didn't tank the service. How about Sony's (SNE) embarrassing 2011 ordeal, when PlayStation users had their information raided? Or hacks on 7-Eleven, T.J. Maxx (TJX), and Heartland Payment Systems (HPY)? No? It feels like 10 million credit card numbers here, 10 million there, and yet, through it all, consumers and businesses forge ahead calmly, just as they have, on the whole, since this sort of hacking first became a problem.
Getting hacked is no longer a scary unknown -- it's practically an expectation. The increased frequency of hacks has consumers settling into the hacking-recovery rhythm.
2. Much of our "private" data isn't.
Younger users especially are accustomed to storing everything on the cloud, and freely distributing their personal information online. Even if their address, phone number, or basic personal info is posted somewhere by an "unauthorized" person, chances are, they've already put it out there themselves -- many times over. That's one reason that half of young people ages 14 to 24 in a recent poll by MTV and the Associated Press said they weren't that upset by hacking of their Facebook and email accounts.
3. We're needles in digital haystacks.
Unless your bank account information is in play, the bigger the hack, the smaller your exposure.
4. The risk is everywhere.
Skype is owned by Microsoft (MSFT), arguably the oldest and most cautious of the big tech players. Snapchat is a startup with a shiny little headquarters in Venice Beach, Calif. If hackers want to hit a company -- regardless of its size, tech savvy, or market value -- they will. That's not scaring people away from the whole Internet. It's making them a lot more risk-tolerant. Our shift in attitude has been a long time in the making. After all, who doesn't know someone who's been hit with credit card fraud?
5. Apps come, apps go.
Customers don't have that deep a relationship with the services they use. We hop from one device, one chat app, and one email client to the next, as new ones are created, get trendy, and attract users. We keep multiple credit cards, and we open and close them depending on the deals they offer (despite it not being a great idea for our credit scores).
The Internet makes it simple not just to adopt and drop business relationships, but to share personal information with a service and then wander off when a more attractive service comes along. That's not to say people are increasingly accustomed to businesses retaining their information after they're no longer customers. It's to say they hardly think about it that much.
The Big Picture
There's one simple, overarching reason we shouldn't be surprised by the logic at work in these five examples. Rather than a huge break from our fearful human nature, consumer confidence in the face of massive hacking taps into a kind of courage as old as evolution: safety in numbers.
When your whole digital herd is the target, it's easy to be unconcerned about suffering real harm from a hack. And when you've got the whole business Internet working around the clock to prevent and rectify hacking victims' losses, those problems that arise can usually be remedied swiftly. It's enough to make you wonder why most hackers bother. And guess what -- in some cases they don't.
The biggest culprit in this winter's hacks hasn't been a malevolent band of criminals trying to rip off consumers or take down corporate America. It was the Syrian Electronic Army, which explains its attacks are designed to discourage businesses from keeping a close relationship with intelligence agencies in the U.S. and around the world. "Microsoft is not our enemy," the organization announced, "but what they are doing affected the SEA."
That's indicative of a fresh kind of challenge for private- and public-sector security experts. But for America's millions of consumers -- even the ones who are hacked -- it's no cause for panic.
James Poulos is a Motley Fool contributing writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamespoulos. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends LinkedIn and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of LinkedIn and Microsoft. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.