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As Google touts its new Glass technology one thing is becoming clear: if computerised eyewear becomes popular to the same level that smartphones have, Glass will change our lives forever.
What will the world be like if everybody is wearing almost-invisible glasses that can record audio and video without anybody noticing? When people can share conversations in real time? What if 'down the line' they have real-time integrated facial recognition technology linked to social media information. What will that world be like to live in?
In a word: 'scary'.
The starting price for Google Glass is $1,500; couple that with the fact that wearable technology has an uphill struggle to gain social acceptance makes it hard to envision them everywhere. But prices fall, and there's a social point where things that onced looked odd: mobile phones, white headphones, Deely boppers, can start to look normal if enough people wear them.
Nobody's really sure how good, or useful, Google Glass will be yet, but if they live up to potential it's not a stretch to see this technology becoming a commonplace sight.
When you stop and think: this is a thought both exciting and terrifying in equal measures. Imagine walking down the street and knowing that anybody around you could be snapping photographs and recording video. Mobile phones make this accessible at the moment, but not surrepticious. You know when people are using phones to record you. Anton Wahlman writing for The Street says: "As soon as you see them, you're aware that you might be filmed. People don't like being filmed."
Then there's the potential for real-time facial recognition, and social media information, which Google has implemented in the form of Google+. Combine the idea of widespread crowd-sourced surveillance (aka Sousveillance) with social databasing and it's not hard to start fantasising about a futuristic scientific dystopia.
Wahlmon takes things a little far in his piece, saying: "Can you imagine the bar scene when people start wearing Google Glasses? Within a second or two, you will have all available information about the person in front of you. Some of that information may not be so flattering.. My Google Glasses might display the social security number, the general rap sheet, social media appearances, and so on, of the person in front of me."
Google hasn't made any reference to facial recognition in any of its Google glass technology. But there is sharing and Hangout integration with Google+ and the idea of people electing to share a Google+ public profile via Google Glass isn't beyond the realms of human imagination.
Who wants to give Google their eyes and ears?
What's perhaps more pressing isn't the public sharing of personal data, it's the tracking and back-end storing of personal details on Google servers. In many ways Google Glass could complete the circle of Google's aim to move seamlessly into everyday life
Quenty Hardy, writing for Forbes, says: "a little creepy, perhaps. Google wants to own your every waking minute online - at home, while in transit, at your workplace, wherever you happen to be." Rather ironically, when you type "Google Wants" into Google itself, it auto-completes the phrase "Google Wants to own your mind."
Google might not own your mind just yet, but it'll certainly keep track of your waking moments with Glass. From where you are, to what you see, hear, and say, share, Google will track it all. In terms of sensory interaction the only thing it won't have access to is what you taste and touch (can we mention this IBM 5 report of "Cognitive Systems" that are looking to bring taste and touch to future devices). A phone that can monitor taste sounds fairly ridiculous, but Glass a little less so.
Hardy points out: "Possible downside: You have to have complete and total faith in the company running the data repository. What if someone hacked in and got your tax return?"
Google's self stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". You might have reasonably thought that the world's information was stuff made by other people: 'books, video clips, newspaper articles, public websites, and so on. But the "world's information" also includes your life: what you like, where you go, who you hang out with, the things you say. And now, perhaps, the things you see and hear.
Some of the hyperbole is perhaps a little far-fetched. "Google Glasses may cause societal chaos" says Wahiman. But these are reasonable concerns.
The upside of social surveillance
Some changes might be positive. Musician Peter Gabriel gave a TED Talk about fighting injustice with video. The idea that people can record video of injustice. He talked about a physical attack that took place when he was young, and compared it with the far more serious tortue that a Chilean lady told him about.
Gabriel says: "But the thing that really amazed me, that I had no idea, was that you could suffer in this way and then have your whole experience, your story, denied, buried and forgotten. And it seemed that whenever there was a camera around, or a video or film camera, it was a great deal harder to do - for those in power to bury the story."
Gabriel is the co-founder of WITNESS, which distributes digital cameras to empower people to document human-rights abuses.There's also nonchelance regarding privacy from people increasingly used to having their entire personal life documented. Reddit readers have a lot to say on Wahlmon's piece, although depressingly the highest voted comment says "The first Google glasses punch to the face video is going to be EPIC".
We're sure it will be, especially if (and more likely, when) that punch in the face comes from a Police Officer. Those involved with public security, a notoriously tricky job, are increasingly recorded on video camera when they keep the peace in public. This can be seen as a good and bad thing. A key part of English law is the notion that "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done," Gordon Hewart, in Rex v. Sussex Justices ex parte McCarthy (1924)
And it's not just professionals that will have to watch what they say and do. The first UK citizen convicted for breaching Section 5 of the 1986 UK Public Order Act (which outlaws threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress) via Google Glass is going to be an interesting development. This is the Hate Speech law that comedians such as Rowan Atkinson have been campaigning about: it essentially makes it illegal to mock people.
We already have to be more careful on Twitter, but Glass might mean we have to be more careful full stop. Citizens have the right to free speech, but look at this quote from Wikipedia regarding the exceptions just in the UK:
"there is a broad sweep of exceptions including threatening, or abusive, speech or behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals),incitement, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, incitement to terrorism including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications, glorifying terrorism, collection or possession of a document or record containing information likely to be of use to a terrorist, treason including imagining the death of the monarch, sedition, obscenity, indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency, defamation, prior restraint, restrictions on court reporting including names of victims and evidence and prejudicing or interfering with court proceedings, prohibition of post-trial interviews with jurors, scandalising the court by criticising or murmuring judges, time, manner, and place restrictions, harassment, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material, copyright, patents, military conduct, and limitations on commercial speech such as advertising."
In short: the ability of everybody to record everything everybody else says might make life a little different in the UK. We all break those laws in everyday speech, all of us, all the time. The only thing keeping us all out of court is the fact that most of us can't be bothered to get all 'legal' about it, and we'd have difficulty proving what was said.
Glass could certainly change that second part, and courts will come under pressure to change the first. So at some point here governments will have to get involved. Either the laws have to change (which might not be a bad thing), or Google has to change its products. Or governments can prevent them coming to market. This final option isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
Google and the EU have been involved in privacy for a long time. Take this Reuters story from 18 Feb: "Google last year consolidated 60 privacy policies into one, combining data collected on individual users across its services, including YouTube, Gmail and social network Google+. Users cannot opt out."
And governments do have sweeping powers, as many a company finds out. In 2008 the European Union fined Microsoft 899 million pounds. No matter how big a company is, the democratically elected governments are bigger. Last year Google was ordered to delete all WiFi data it collected from Street Cars in the UK. Google is still not allowed to operate Street View in many countries, and was forced to implement number plate and face blurring technology in many other countries.
The privacy concerns from Google Glass are likely to be much more pressing than Street View, and Google will face serious legislative opposition if Glass usage becomes widespread.
Apple iGlass and social media
There's opportunity here for Apple. The Cupertino-based company is famously reticent about social media. Perhaps this is because the company, and by extension its employees, tend to be secretive. Social media is a big no-no for Apple employees. And there's no official Twitter or Facebook account for Apple (although iBookstore does have a Twitter account).
Until now Apple's lack of social media expertise has always seemed to be an Achilles heel for the company. Everybody laughed at Ping compared to Twitter. And FindMyFriends is hardly Facebook. Maybe Apple doesn't get social media, maybe it just doesn't care. Maybe it decided long ago that being out of the social media game was worth more to it than being in. It certainly hasn't stopped it selling iPhones and becoming the richest company on Earth.
Maybe this is a good place for Apple to be right now. Regardless of whether it's by accident or design, Apple does not have the same problem with privacy that Google has. Apple iGlass will also record video, and take photographs, but what they won't do is share information with social networks unless Apple allows it.
Make no mistake Apple is a data-driven company and will also collect serious data on users of iGlasses, but it won't have to sell that data to third-parties for profit, or use them to target ads, or create a vast public database of personal information.
Apple is a hardware company and that's how it makes its money. People trust Apple. We think most people will feel happier in a world where everybody is wearing Apple iGlass rather than Google Glass. Purely because Apple is capable of taking privacy seriously, and Apple will probably be able to convince (and work with) governments to make it happen in a way that Google might not be able to.
Google Glass is, by all accounts, a remarkable piece of kit. Joshua Topolsky, The Verge says "The design of Glass is actually really beautiful. Elegant, sophisticated. They look human and a little bit alien all at once This is Apple-level design."
But it's not made by Apple. It's made by Google, and it runs to Google's business plan not Apple's. Google collects and shares information; Apple makes and sells hardware.
Staying out of the social media game might be the smartest move Apple ever made.
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