Ambient Privacy?

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This new Orwellian phrase is being used without irony by tech writers. Privacy, by itself, isn’t coherent to those who want to embrace “ambient privacy.” Matthew Green recommends we all read this. Its author compares the privacy problem to those facing environmentalists decades ago. One upshot of the analogy is a confirmation that individual action to promote and to protect privacy is futile.

None of these harms could have been fixed by telling people to vote with their wallet, or carefully review the environmental policies of every company they gave their business to, or to stop using the technologies in question. It took coordinated, and sometimes highly technical, regulation across jurisdictional boundaries to fix them.

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What to Expect on the Interwebs

According to Mary Meeker:

The internet will become more of a cesspool.

Schrödinger’s Cat in Russia

image of Schroedinger's catYou have probably seen the news that some physicists think they have a new twist on Schrödinger’s cat. In the famous example, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time inside a box. Maxim Osipov has a fully Russian variation in a story called “The Gypsy.” It involves a doctor going to an airport in Sheremetyevo and a conversation the doctoro has with the “security” guys:

Now he’ll hear – for the nth time – their story about an American girl who traveling with a kitty cat –  they put them in special carriers, for the belly of the plane –  and the kitty cat died. The baggage handlers at Sheremetyevo didn’t want any trouble, so they threw the carcass in the trash and replaced it with some cat they caught near the airport. The American girl got into a huff and insisted it wasn’t her kitty –  because her kitty had been dead, and she was taking her home to bury her. She was returning from some town, maybe Chelyabinsk. Last time the story was different: the American with the dead cat had flown in from Philadelphia. Today’s version was more believable, but it was still a lie, of course. The “security” guys call Americans “Americunts” and “Amerifucks” –  ridiculous words, and they’ve never been to America –  but he still laughs every time.

“Good Omens” and the Truth of Temptation

Coincidences sometimes bring illumination. “Good Omens” made it to Netflix at the same time the Pope decided that an old prayer needed to be changed to make God look better. The Pope decided that we couldn’t have a prayer that said God leads people into temptation (“lead us not into temptation”). It’s a familiar picture of God that forgets about the prohibition given to Adam and Even about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, about the flood, about Sodom and Gomorrah, about the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Meanwhile, The Guardian publishes a story about “Good Omens” in which Neil Gaiman tells us that the beauty of “Good Omens” is in the way it doesn’t attempt to depict authorities, including God, as utterly benevolent.

[Gaiman] talks with relish about finding out, on a 2010 visit to mainland China, that his children’s books weren’t available there because, according to his publisher, “you show children being wiser than their parents and you show disrespect to authority and you show children doing bad things and getting away with it”. In response, he decided “to write a book which has all of those things in it”, not least “disrespect for the family unit.”

photo from Netflix series Good Omens

Quotation of the Day

From Ted Chiang’s story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”:

New technology doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

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You Can’t Fix Privacy

In the same way that fixing the oceans is not possible via individual consumer choices, e.g., choosing the “sustainable” fish at the supermarket, the problems of privacy are as large as capitalism, meaning a solution would require forces far beyond an individual’s choices. Joanna Stern gives some of the details surrounding the difficulties a person will encounter while trying to achieve technological privacy. Again, it’s about money and how your data can be converted into profit.

Screenshot of Wall Street Journal Video about Privacy

And Then There’s Posthumous Privacy

photo of James Ensor's "Skeletons Warming Themselves"You could make these things up, but who would believe it? Elaine Kasket (was she destined to deal with the dead?) discusses the internet traffic of the dead in the latest Times Literary Supplement:

Social media companies are profit-making machines that connect living individuals, sell them things, and monetize their data. They are not charities, public health organizations, non-profit cemeteries or professional grief counsellors. In life we deliver an enormous amount of personal data into their hands, not realizing that at the point of original sign-up we are also appointing them to manage our data after we die as they see fit, a role for which they would seem to lack appropriate qualifications. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, aghast at what has been wrought with his creation, pleads that we urgently need to decentralize the World Wide Web and regain control of our personal information. The fact that big tech’s ownership of this information – which might include some of our most precious memories – continues unabated after we’re dead seems as powerful a reason as any to agree with him.

Recently Facebook has leavened its paternalism with autonomy, by granting heightened powers to “legacy contacts”. This unshoulders much of their own burden to deal with special requests, which is probably a relief because they have a lot of dead people and untold numbers of mourners to consider. If Facebook’s fortunes persist, they may find themselves hosting nearly 5 billion dead profiles by the end of the century.