Note — Jun 30, 2019

The New Wilderness

Sharp take here by the multitalented Maciej Cegłowski, introducing the idea of “ambient privacy,” the society level intersection of everyone’s individual privacy which surveillance capitalism is eating away. He ponders how this loss affects our democracies and then makes (as others have done) the parallel with the environment; something that was so ambient and plentiful that we didn’t think of it… until the balance shifted and we needed to introduce protections. Cegłowski has a knack for finding the turn of phrase that drives a point home, so please excuse / enjoy the multiple quotes.

No two companies have done more to drag private life into the algorithmic eye than Google and Facebook. Together, they operate the world’s most sophisticated dragnet surveillance operation, a duopoly that rakes in nearly two thirds of the money spent on online ads. You’ll find their tracking scripts on nearly every web page you visit. They can no more function without surveillance than Exxon Mobil could function without pumping oil from the ground. […]

The question we need to ask is not whether our data is safe, but why there is suddenly so much of it that needs protecting.

I’ll call it ‘ambient privacy’—the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition. […]

Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale. […]

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. […]

Telling people that they own their data, and should decide what to do with it, is just another way of disempowering them. […]

To what extent is living in a surveillance-saturated world compatible with pluralism and democracy? What are the consequences of raising a generation of children whose every action feeds into a corporate database? What does it mean to be manipulated from an early age by machine learning algorithms that adaptively learn to shape our behavior?

Elsewhere: His point about surveillance society vs individual privacy rights reminded me of Dan Hill’s The city is my homescreen which contrasted the default user experience focus with the needs for things to work not just for individuals but at city and society level.

To be light on dystopia I didn’t feature this one more but Soon, satellites will be able to watch you everywhere all the time and that will certainly not be helping ambient privacy.