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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Privacy Fears with Google Glass are Overblown

Google Glass enables creepy surveillance. But so does everything.

  • March 4, 2013

Yesterday I was at a café with my friend Emma. We were having coffee and relaxing, when suddenly I got a text. The text was from–Emma.

“I swear this guy behind you is taking a video of me,” read her text.

A young man in the corner had been eyeing her all hour, she said, and he kept holding his phone at unlikely angles. We left the café fairly soon after that. Later, she told me the same thing had happened to her not long ago on the subway.

What the man was doing was creepy, to be sure, but strictly speaking, it wasn’t illegal. Only when a person has a so-called “reasonable expecation of privacy”–in places like a hotel room or a bathroom–the law has determined that it’s illegal to record people. In public, that “reasonable expectation” is considered not to exist.

Using a smartphone to surreptitiously film someone isn’t so easy–Emma spotted it right away. But a number of people are beginning to wonder if the coming of Google Glass, which lives before your eyebrows and which can simply record what you’re looking at, betokens a new era of rampant and damaging creep-o surveillance. If everyone’s wearing a camera on their eye–worse yet, a camera whose footage could be uploaded to Google’s servers, then submitted to facial recognition software–then what does that mean for people like Emma, or like all of us?

Says Mark Hurst over at Creative Good:

“The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.”

He goes further, getting downright dystopian:

“Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.”

The first reactions to such an argument tend to be about the iteration of Google Glass that we’ve seen so far. “Oh, they’re so dorky, no one will wear them anyway–so this isn’t a problem.” But let’s set aside questions of style, or clunkiness, for the moment; let’s assume some day Google solves this problem. Will we really wind up in the dystopian future Hurst imagines? One in which everyone has a video camera in their contact lens, uploading a record of everyone in their environs for Big Brother to exploit?

I think most of the scenarios that have been put forward so far–Brian Proffitt imagines a world in which gangsters can use such tech to intimidate witnesses on the stand–are a little far-fetched, for two reasons: they seem to virtually ignore the force of social norms and the power of our legal system.

Let’s begin with the latter. Our courts have outlined a certain definition of “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but who’s to say that future cases won’t lead to an expansion of that definition–or of explorations of other legal concepts to protect us from such abuse? If we reach a point where our surveillance technology is intrusive to a degree everyone finds exploitative, it’s reasonable to think that legal challenges–be they new laws or interpretations of old ones–will reign in some of these excesses. Privacy advocates will have their say, and Google doesn’t win every battle it fights (though it does seem sometimes that advocates in Europe are fighting this battle more effectively than in the States).

The second point is more subtle. Critics say that people won’t wear Google Glasses because they’re dorky–a kind of social pressure. Suppose the style problem is fixed, however. Why won’t social pressures similarly restrict the use of these imagined, invisible Google Contact Lenses? I trust my friends not to record me in our casual gatherings now. If I discovered one of them did so regularly, it would be a serious strain on our friendship. Social norms will, one hopes, act as a restraining influence on many of the possibilities afforded by Google Glass, or any new technology. We will learn how to fit this technology into our mores, just as we have with technologies before it.

When Emma and I left that café, I stared down the creepy guy in the corner and gave him a cold and knowing, “What’s up.”

He looked ashamed.

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