Sunday, March 17, 2013

Google Glass and Privacy: You've just been Glassed!

Last week at the SXSW Conference, Google showed off its latest product Google Glass, The gadget last made headlines when Sergei Brin claimed that - while sporting Google glass - mobile phones are "emasculating", In other words, men (and women?) will fork over money to Google to be "real men". Prior to that ,the search engine giant invited the Verge's Josh Topolsky and revealed in this interview that the product will be available to the wider public by the end of 2013. The company plans to work with eye-glass manufacturers to make the technology available through such channels as well.

As can be seen in this interview, Google believes that the glasses will assist human beings to better connect in the world we live in: we can stay in the moment without having to take out our smartphones to capture the moment. For example, if you attend your kids sporting or extra curricular events you are probably used to seeing parents viewing the event through to their iPads or smartphones - instead of actually watching the kids play.

Is this the next big thing?
With Apple's steady stream of innovative products, such as the iPhone and iPad, having seem to become mainstream, some are questioning whether innovation in technology is becoming stagnant. For example, on this show on the Agenda, a group of panelists explored this topic based on a survey conducted by TVO that indicated the biggest inventions occurred decades ago.

Enter wearable technology: is Google Glass the next "big thing"?

Some commentators, such as Leo Laporte, have questioned the value of Google Glass or other wearable technology (e.g. it is rumoured that Apple is working on a watch). Does it really solve a problem that we have? Or is it a means to manufacture a want in order to satisfy Wall Street insatiable appetite for endless growth and profits?

Laporte, humourously,  has judged the soon-to-be-released device as a "Segway for your face" - referring to the 'people mover' that had low commercial success due to the fact it did not look fashionable to ride one of these things. Consequently, it is not clear whether Google glass will be the next big thing or be a commercial failure.

Privacy implications of Wearable Tech
That being said, the privacy implications of this device are hard to ignore. In fact, one business in Seattle, the 5 point cafe has gone to ban the device. The owner of the establishment has admitted that the is was partially a PR stunt. However, one could argue that the ploy was successful because it speaks to underlying concern in society with the increasing encroachment of technology on one's privacy.

In a previous blog post, I have discussed how the shift to social media is from a certain perspective an adjustment in privacy for people that live in non-rural environments - where individuals are used to the anonymity of the condominium or the suburban sub-division. However, it is not for those that live in a more village oriented setting where everybody knows everybody and individuals could anonymity.

The issue, however, with Google Glass is that it is integrated into one's person's physical body and, unlike a smartphone, video camera or that ancient camera with smoke and all,  it inherently lacks the social mechanism to communicate that the interaction is being recorded. Even with social media, it is well understood that the communication is occurring in a medium that can be easily shared, so those that engage in such a communication understand there is a possibility that their conversation is not private and may not be kept confidential. In other words, precisely because Google Glass is integrated into the moment, it inherently lacks the ability to gather:
  • "Notice. The entity provides notice about its privacy policies and procedures and identifies the purposes for which personal information is collected, used, retained, and disclosed."
  • "Choice and consent. The entity describes the choices available to the individual and obtains implicit or explicit consent with respect to the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information."
(This was taken from AICPA-CICA Generally Accepted Privacy Principles, see page 7)

Of course these principles are designed for companies and organizations to manage the privacy of their customers and other stakeholders. However, they are useful because they help breakdown the problem of "wearable technology" in terms of what the privacy issues exactly are - beyond the "creepy factor". (Jeff Jarvis, professor of Journalism at CUNY and open-Google-fan-boy often talks about how creepy is too vague a term to be an obstacle to technological innovations that, in his opinion, increase the ability of a person to live life in public.) That is, the problem with Google glass is that when you lean in to talk to someone you are expecting them to keep what you are saying confidential. However, if they are wearing technology that can record what you are saying (i.e.without your knowledge) - then it effectively violates that expectation of privacy because the person wearing Google Glass has failed to give "notice" and therefore cannot gain "consent".

Consequently there will be need to be some adjustment in terms of wearing Google Glass. For example, one suggestion I have heard from someone on the Twit network, is that Google Glass should have some kind of light on that indicates it is taking pictures/videos/etc. However, given the nature of things, people can always find a way around such "controls".

Avoiding being Glassed
Inevitably, the privacy issues will go the way of social media. As horror stories of being "Glassed" (i.e. what I define as "an embarrassing-Glass-recorded-personal-moments makes it way YouTube or other video sharing site") get around,  people will become aware of the privacy risk of being involved with Google Glass and may simply request: "Can you take those off before we talk? I'd rather not be Glassed. Thanks."

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