Maciej Cegłowski on Privacy in the Information Age

Maciej Cegłowski has a really good essay explaining how to think about privacy today:

For the purposes of this essay, 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.

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.

Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.

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.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. 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.

He’s not the first person to talk about privacy as a societal property, or to use pollution metaphors. But his framing is really cogent. And “ambient privacy” is new—and a good phrasing.

Posted on June 19, 2019 at 5:21 AM14 Comments


Winter June 19, 2019 6:03 AM

Like a clean environment, privacy is a public good, and not a private product. And we know quite well that like pollution, threats to privacy do not stop at national borders.

Markets tend to be quite bad at creating public goods.

Denton Scratch June 19, 2019 6:28 AM

Off-topic, sorry:

In the zoo 32 monkeys live in two enclosures, A and B. One of the monkeys is albino (all white). The message “albino Monkey lives in enclosure A” contains 4 bits of information. How many monkeys live in enclosure B?

This is from a comment on Craig Murray’s blog. It’s a nice information-theory riddle.

Petre Peter June 19, 2019 7:27 AM

Of course Facebook is for a US version of GDPR-they can afford the hefty fines while the smaller players cannot. It’s sure to eliminate potential competition

parabarbarian June 19, 2019 9:20 AM

I do not, for a moment, believe that the directors of Facebook or Google really care about privacy. They are joining the clamor for regulation to insure a place in making the laws to better ensure the result favors their business models. The author seems to get that and once you get past the description of high tech virtue signaling, the article is pretty good. I like the term “ambient privacy” — I think it captures how individuals think about the subject in the real world.

Winter June 19, 2019 12:26 PM

Of course Facebook is for a US “version of GDPR-they can afford the hefty fines…”

The EU fines are maxxed at 4% of global turnover per incident. That seems to be convincing.

But the politicians in the USA seem to care more about sponsors than citizens, so your mileage might vary.

gadgetzzz June 19, 2019 12:26 PM

Petre Petre wrote: Of course Facebook is for a US version of GDPR-they can afford the hefty fines while the smaller players cannot. It’s sure to eliminate potential competition

IIRC, GDPR fines are levied as a percentage of global sales, i.e. top line revenue. This would be just as painful for large companies as for small ones. The percentage is also up to the discretion of the levying authority, within some (single digit) range.

No One / Ex Cathedra June 19, 2019 9:47 PM

“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.”

 Enough of this nonsense. Saudi Arabia became a surveillance state after 9-11 because of its association with the United States and its deep instability.  AQ was, and still is, real. AQ's level of seriousness about what they hold true is absolutely off the scale. Anyone who has closely followed the news about the Kingdom knows the story. The equipment, the know-how, the whole shebang, is red, white, and blue--emphasis on red.

 Let's cut the tripe and get to the point. The United States--meaning the government and the big companies--do not just show ads with "this newfound capacity" to remove privacy from human beings. The companies do not want people to make rational decisions--I am thinking of what Noam Chomsky has said--they want to know what people do, where they are, who they associate with, everything, and then apply as much sophisticated analysis onto this data as possible, and then push ads to control what people want.  Showing people ads and controlling them are the same thing. They are creating a specific type of human being with a wired or wireless connection into its brain box--to be monitored, or to be monetized.

 The government of the United States, that Hydra whose imposing heads suffer from limited cranial capacity and a habit of fighting each other, aimed for global information dominance: strip away the encryption and suck up as much data as possible in every way possible from every person possible, to include American citizens, real time--  but then they got caught. The big American companies do something analogous.  In fact, it is a safe bet that our friends in Maryland are in bed with Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc., <b>globally</b>. It surely looks as if it is all part of the same operation, and quite likely it is.

 Without 9-11 much of this would not have happened. The <i><b>global</b></i> war on terror (we are going to remove terror from the earth, even from the dictionary) has rebounded.  The chickens have come home to roost, and the United States is quickly on the path to becoming unrecognizable from its relatively free and integrated form of 10 September, 2001--and the sad, sad fact is that this was one of the <b>stated goals</b> of the tall guy with the long beard who envisioned the attack. If we were to go to D.C. and could talk to anyone we wished about what has happened and about the real meaning of terrorism, we would not find a soul who has cogent answers, especially about how to end it, but surveillance is now a growth industry in America that is here to stay.

 The truth is unpalatable, so attention is moved towards China, which is declared an internally-directed surveillance state, even though it is not that at all.  Why isn't it?  Because it does not have to be, and their real goals are all about business, manufacturing, and China's bright future--in fact, a new era. Xinjiang is then brought up as a kind of straw man fallacy. Pouring in mountains of cash to make life better there and modernize the place is the main thing that is really going on in Xinjiang. People are much, much more free in China than many suppose, and their lives are improving rapidly.  They have protests, there is social mobilization, but most people do not have a reason to be upset or angry. What one encounters is the well-grounded optimism that comes from success and hard work. China controls its borders, they don't let people in who don't go through a process--it's rational. And the armed police don't go around shooting people as the police do in America.  In short, the violence and distrust that the U.S. exported are now coming back in waves, and the easiest response is to pretend that none of it--no Afghanistan, no dismemberment of Iraq, no Yemen, no Mali, no Shinwar Massacre, no secret prisons, no torture, no vulnerability by design in cryptographic primitives for people who have an expectation of privacy, no violation of the U.S. Constitution, no spying on the entire population of the United States in one way or another-- has happened while saying others are evil (the real reason being that they do not roll over and support U.S. domination--China--to include information dominance) and we hold our tongues for the people we like (who are weak and don't mind our dominance), no matter how appalling they are (Saudi Arabia).

Surveillance is violence: it hurts people in subtle ways. If the U.S. does not come clean and go back to supporting the U.S. Constitution, the country will be like Darwin’s finches: changing bit by bit until it becomes a different thing.

Sed Contra June 19, 2019 9:53 PM

Love the image symbolic of FBK at the start of the linked article. El Z grinning on the way to the bank, striding sliding past a population of sheep mesmerized in and by the cave of the artificial world of screens, senses cut off from the real world, and happily marinating in their toxic stew.

No One / Ex Cathedra June 20, 2019 12:56 AM

That essay contains a link that is pure gold.

It is about the history of advertising for smoking.

No One / Ex Cathedra June 20, 2019 9:00 PM

On the Superficial Talk of Maciej Cegłowski

 Maciej Cegłowski writes well. He is in the business of polite writing and friendly speech that clarifies the obvious to the well-off.  This is big business.  But if you make your customers uncomfortable, they will stop listening and you might ruin lunch for everyone involved, which, by all accounts, promises to be monumental:  tagliatelle with non-confinement-raised pork, batons of baby potatoes, strawberry pudding, etc.  Making them laugh might be beyond the ken of most public-interest technologists, so it isn't really an option, even though we need it.

 On one side of the coin, information technology has a negative impact that has profoundly damaged the United States. This truth is very unpalatable:  the family has taken a hit with everyone glued to a device, trust has been lowered, exclusion has been intensified, divisions are deeper and more acrimonious, surveillance has been normalized, watching obscene videos is common, the Constitution is under threat, etc.  So an industry has popped up whose job it is to tell you how to respond and what the threats are.  But the problem is that people like Maciej Cegłowski are not qualified to fill in the picture for you, and if they were, they could never do it properly because so few would listen due to the demands of digestion.

 People like Maciej Cegłowski give you some good information and tell you what to think, but they can also keep you uninformed. Example: data is much less important to social control in some countries than to others, but this has not occurred to Mr. Cegłowski.  When he makes a blanket statement about social control in China, people want to listen, but not too much--again, the demands of digestion limit bandwidth.  Social control in China is very strong indeed, but it is delivered via an unexpected route: <b>education</b>, which is intense--math, English, math, Chinese, math-- and the merciless demands of what everyone agrees upon; namely, money is good.  Grandpa and grandma, mom and dad--these are the basic instruments of strict social control in China, and the family is still very strong.

 Astute public-interest technologists cannot separate social issues from technical issues if they want to actually tell the truth instead of merely pleasing people.  China does not have books about developing trust in the information age, just like you didn't tell your love interest on your first date, "what is romance? Let's define it. Let's develop romance on our first date.  In fact, I have a pamphlet on it." China still has it--social cohesion and trust--going on, but America doesn't, overall, like before. And that is the rub. Which is exacerbated by the breakdown of the traditional family. When you have ambient trust, you feel like you matter, which is how Chinese people feel today.  In America?  Do you matter with everyone spying on you all the time so intensely? It's a pure exercise of power against you, and it is all done because you don't matter diddly-squat.

 "Whoa, Nelly," says the reader. "The American people are sovereign.  I am independent and can think for myself.  I can vote.  I am not a robot."

 <b>Are the American people still sovereign</b> if they are spied upon intensely and that data is used to control them?

David June 20, 2019 9:44 PM

“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.”

Is anybody here naive enough to think “we” are only using it to “show ads”? This is interesting coming from Bruce and the schneier’s blog.

Who is “we” and what do you think really happens when we were shown “ads”?

No One / Ex Cathedra June 21, 2019 4:45 AM



But otherwise the essay was good, as Mr. Schneier said.  The author made many good points.  But he did break with reality on the point you brought up.

Me June 24, 2019 9:59 AM

@David and @No One

I think this is an example of hypoberly, rather than say what is, put out the least controversial version, thus not distracting from your other points with something contentious and tangential.

I doubt he is naive enough to believe that.

David Wall July 15, 2019 1:55 PM

“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.”

What kind of analogy is that? We are not coerced by government, against our will, to be use their products. Are many inmates in prison by choice?

No, what it means that is prisoners like reading because they use the prison library.

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