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  • Privacy under Surveillance Capitalism
  • Jacob Silverman (bio)

in 1982, the national science foundation published a report about the prospects for teletext and videotex in the United States. The report, written by a RAND Corporation–affiliated think tank known as the Institute for the Future, examined the market potential and public-policy issues of these information-services technologies, which at the time were just two protocols among many competing to be the future of networked communications. (The report, "Teletext and Videotex in the United States," discusses "packet switching," but the word "Internet" does not appear in its 300-plus pages.) Envisioning a range of possibilities for teletext and videotex that spanned entertainment, news, shopping, banking, and other information services, the report also warned that "at the same time that these systems will bring a greatly increased flow of information and services into the home, they will also carry a stream of information out of the home about the preferences and behavior of its occupants" (Adler et al. 1982).

Teletext and videotex may have been banished to the dustbin of technological history, yet the report's warning proved prophetic. But what may have been a cause for alarm to some has proven to be an immense commercial opportunity for others, as personal information and behavioral tracking have emerged as major assets in today's surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2015). A Senate report estimated the US data broker industry to be worth $150 billion per year (US Senate Committee on Commerce 2013). Data and personally identifiable information (PII) are the new extractive commodities of the age. Often compared to oil, data may be a more renewable resource, albeit [End Page 147] at a cost to privacy, autonomy, democratic accountability, consumer choice, and indeed, the environment (in the form of massive energy costs for data centers, e-waste, and the mining of rare minerals).

With the proliferation of networked devices in our homes and on our bodies, our surrounding environments now overflow with sensors and other data producers. Earlier generations saw some forms of governmental and commercial data collection about the home and what goes on in it. Market research, census records, consumer surveys, loyalty cards, credit bureaus, property records—these were common predigital data streams, and many still exist in one form or another. Now the home—and the activities, behaviors, and preferences of those within it—is becoming transparent, as mappable as a city street. Internet of Things (IoT) devices track the comings and goings of a home's occupants. Roomba, the autonomous robot vacuum, maps the rooms it cleans (although it does not transmit the maps it creates anywhere), and future versions will be able to recognize household objects. Researchers have successfully used slight variations in WiFi signal coverage to map the interiors of rooms and the people in them—in other words, to "see" through walls (Condiliffe 2015). Intelligence agencies are able to use the sounds of computers' fans to exfiltrate data from air-gapped machines (Zetter 2016). Law enforcement officials have begun subpoenaing data and records from always-on, always-listening IoT devices, like the Amazon Echo, for use in criminal investigations (Steele 2016). Subtle vibrations of everyday objects can be measured to reconstruct the sounds in a room (Timmer 2014). Some of these techniques are the product of cutting-edge hacks or secret operations by intelligence agencies, but they reflect a growing technological capacity. What may now be the province of a security service or a rogue tech firm will soon enough be commonplace.

The home was never an inviolable site of total privacy. For some children, women, the disabled, the elderly, domestic workers, or those caught in abusive relationships, the home is neither a place of privacy nor comfortable domesticity, but an arena of contentious power relationships. Children are well-practiced at navigating the [End Page 148] shoals of disclosure with their parents—sharing some information, concealing more, demanding a lock on their door, perhaps, or regularly clearing their browser histories. A great deal of subversive behavior in childhood revolves around keeping information secret from parents and avoiding their watchful surveillance.

In the realm of personal privacy and digital technologies, then, the "invasive other" might be best characterized...