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The Google Panopticon

In April of 2012, Google announced Project Glass, a wearable hardware interface for smartphones which will enable users to access a multitude of services using voice control and have information presented on a type of heads-up display.

The geek-o-sphere exploded with joy. Thrilled with the possibility of becoming even more immersed in the online world (and more closely connected with those who use/live in it), the Net was ablaze with “shut up & take my money!”-style comments.

Since the first announcement, Google revealed very little else about Glass until just last month, when the company declared they were seeking alpha testers (or, as Google calls them, “Glass Explorers”) to help iron out some bugs and nut out more features.

Another demonstration video accompanied the Explorers announcement, this one showing what looks like a slightly tweaked interface.

Privacy advocates were immediately concerned about wearing a GPS-enabled device which could track someone wherever they went. However, smartphones have done this for years.

There has not, as yet, been much discussion about the impact of Google Glass on people who do not use it.

Google Glass significantly raises the bar for privacy concerns with its capacity for being able to take photos and video in a far more surreptitious manner than was possible before. Now, many people are worried about a virtual surveillance net being created and powered by people wearing Glass.

Given the data mining capabilities of Google, this is definitely something to be worried about. Google requires strongly encourages users to sign up to its Google+ social network using real names. Tie that in with Google Docs and Gmail and you have very extensive database of someone’s activities. Run some facial recognition software over images or footage captured by Google Glass and you could compile a very detailed dossier on someone.

The covert nature of this photography is also something that should be looked at.

When someone raises a camera or a phone to take a photo or shoot some video, it’s often obvious as to what’s happening. Google Glass removes that cue. It’s possible to sit across a table from someone and shoot video of them without them having any idea. I think that’s where much of the “creepiness” comes in; people don’t know if they’re being photographed/filmed or not.

While it’s true that it’s now increasingly difficult to just walk down the street without being picked up by a surveillance camera, there’s a big difference between that and ending up as part of the background in someone’s social network stream. For example, surveillance camera footage is generally erased after a certain time. There’s no sign at all if video captured by Google Glass has an expiry date.

“There is a kid wearing Google Glasses at this restaurant which, until just now, used to be my favorite spot.” – David Yee (@tangentialism), Feb 23, 2013

In Australia, we do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. It it perfectly legal to photograph or shoot video of anyone in a public place. In a recent case in Sydney, a senior member of the NSW Police Force actually encouraged it.

Even though there is no right to privacy in a public space, it’s a different matter in a private place or within what Australian law terms “enclosed lands”. Within those boundaries, property owners or custodians are well within their rights to ask people to stop filming or photographing.

Indeed, there is a pre-emptive strike against Google Glass happening in the United States already. The 5 Point Café in Seattle has banned the device from its premises, well before Glass is even available to the public.

Technological distraction is not new. I’ve had conversational flows interrupted or broken completely by TVs or ringing phones, and this was in the 1970s. But because Google Glass definitely is new (in fact, still in alpha), we’ve not yet come up with the etiquette system that will let us handle it. I’d imagine that such a system would be like that which guides mobile phone use, or smoking. And, of course, there will be inconsiderate knobs who ignore Glass guidelines just as there are presently people who’ll use their mobiles in restaurants.

What will be new, though, is the widespread possibly covert filming and photography of everyday people to profit a massive corporation.

There are also legal considerations to be ironed out as well. Who will own that video? Could it be used as evidence in a court case or an investigation?

I’d be very surprised if Google did not build an indicator into Glass such as an LED which activated when recording video. Many camera such as the iSight built into Apple’s computers do this. But I would also not be surprised if Google tied Glass strongly into Google+, Maps, and other sites and apps. If auto-upload is activated, Google would potentially have access to everywhere you go, and everything you see and hear.

The panopticon is a double-edged sword. It can be used to keep people living in fear, or it can be used in the journalistic tradition of “holding power to account”. Once again, it is the age-old scenario of us being able to develop technology far quicker than we can develop the moral and legal framework within which that technology can be used.