This week Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski (also a web developer and social critic) asked readers of his blog to consider an emerging threat to ambient privacy.
He defines it as “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.”
Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. 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. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.
That is not consent…
Our discourse around privacy needs to expand to address foundational questions about the role of automation: 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? That is not the conversation Facebook or Google want us to have. Their totalizing vision is of a world with no ambient privacy and strong data protections, dominated by the few companies that can manage to hoard information at a planetary scale. They correctly see the new round of privacy laws as a weapon to deploy against smaller rivals, further consolidating their control over the algorithmic panopticon.