Maciej Cegłowski coined a phrase which I think should resonate far beyond the circles in which it currently does. The phrase: ‘ambient privacy’. He defined 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. 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.

In a sense, it is not surprising the notion should have gone largely unthought. For all of human history, ambient privacy was an inevitable fact of life because it required considerable effort to record something for posterity. Only God was omniscient.

This was something which long frustrated those with totalitarian ambitions as even the most diligent intelligence gathering organisations struggled to create enough data points on enough individuals to have meaningful effect. But technological advances are putting more data collection devices in more places than ever. From CCTV cameras to smartwatches, we inhabit a world which is increasingly surveyed. To the extent that even the notorious Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (more commonly known as the Stasi) couldn’t manage to collect even a fraction of the data citizens now willingly provide though posts, health apps and location tracking.

This causes many of us to focus on personal privacy. My friend might be willing to wear a tracking device or upload every moment of their day to a platform whose founder thinks ‘privacy is no longer a social norm'; I am not.

This is what makes ambient privacy such a problematic concept as while I might take steps to secure my personal spaces, I can’t control the public spaces into which I must venture unless I wish to become a hermit on a mountain. But even there, satellites will still likely film my location and movements.

This is particularly crucial as hitherto existing privacy legislation tends to focus on the individual and consequently frames protections as an individual right. However, as Cegłowski notes:

If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

Because being ‘off the grid’ is now next to impossible in many societies, one or two more privacy respecting apps in our life won’t stem the tide. This is not to say personal efforts shouldn’t be made or that there is something inevitable about the future state of the world. It is why I choose Linux, privacy respecting open source developers and e2EE as often as I can. But my need to be a part of a society which predominantly doesn’t make these choices means the most meaningful solution is to look at ambient as well as personal privacy. Only by re-framing the conversation thus, can we hope to stem the massive social experiment emanating from the big tech firms, and those who seek to imitate their profits.

In writing this, a moment of Lucas brilliance came sharply into view. It is an ominous statement by his fictional character Padmé Amidala:

So this is how liberty dies —with thunderous applause.

Perhaps in the case of our privacy, it ought to be rephrased: ‘So this is how privacy dies — with a flurry of likes’.

Bill of Rights by 1st United States Congress is licensed under Public Domain.

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