It’s not just a style thing: you may have good reason to avoid the geek at the bar or in the park wearing Google’s latest invention, the wearable interface known as Glass. One feature of the interface is the life-logging feature ‘Life Bits,’ intended to help the Glass user log the ephemera of everyday life. Despite its innocuous intent, the design has unintended consequences: Life Bits logs everyone who comes into direct contact with the Glass wearer, transforming them into a mobile recording device.
Google is positioning Glass as a revolution in the way we live, work, and interact with people, online and offline–essentially by projecting your smartphone into your eyeball.
It’s a cool concept, but at what cost? Life-logging devices like the Nike FuelBand FitBit [correction: FitBit is made by a company by the same name] have increasing numbers of fans, but Glass is among the first to capture personally identifiable information in rich media about others. This brings up a number of privacy concerns: How does consent work in these situations? Who owns the data that is collected on these devices? How and where is that data stored, and who will have access to it?
In our daily lives, we’re already under fairly pervasive surveillance: CCTVs in public places are increasingly inescapable, and online your actions are tracked by everyone from governments to marketers. But with tools like Glass, everyday citizens are poised to become Little Brothers without even realizing it.
Perfect digital memory – A good idea?
Committing each and every detail of your life to eternal digital memory is not a new, or even uniquely ‘Googley’ idea. As collecting and storing data becomes infinitely cheap and easy, many are keen to adopt such technologies that remember everything — automatically.
Microsoft has been working on something similar to Glass for several years now, known as MyLifeBits. Born out of a 2001 initiative that explored the possibility of storing all personal information that could be found in PCs, MyLifeBits evolved to try and store everything that could be captured using real-time data collection and advanced “SenseCams”: phone calls, conversations, keystrokes and mouse clicks, pictures and meetings.
And although MyLifeBits grew out of research, the “Memoto” is a pure consumer tool: a camera worn around the neck that takes a picture every 30 seconds. The Swedish startup is based on the premise that the important moments in life aren’t “only the stuff you thought you would want to remember.” The device is small and unobtrusive, and doesn’t come with a delete function, increasing the chances the camera will remain undetected, while committing the user to recording absolutely everything.
Glass: Taking surveillance to another level?
Devices like the Memoto or tools like MyLifeBits might not bother you from a privacy perspective–after all, we’re pretty much always under some type of surveillance every day. Whether at the bank, on the street, in buildings, in the metro, security cameras are littered across our urban areas. We don’t actively consent to those cameras, so what’s the difference?
Unlike cameras operated in public, laws regulating the surveillance of one individual over another are patchy, confused and most likely not well known to average citizens. And unlike Google’s usual privacy dilemmas, this isn’t about what actions the company takes, but about how its users behave.
Contrary to Google’s other products, using Glass means you become the collector of data – scanning and recording information in the real world and uploading it into the Google servers. When Glass becomes part of inevitable partnerships with other services (Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already noted his interest) and the eventual introduction of tools like facial recognition technology, and we’re talking about turning citizens into Little Googles, collecting and storing information wherever they go.
Even before they are widely available to the public, the backlash against Glass has begun. A cafe owner in Seattle has pre-emptively banned them from his establishment, worrying that privacy-loving clients might be driven away. And while coffee isn’t the end of the world, there are plenty of more serious scenarios where indiscriminate logging could create discomfort: what about on playgrounds, schools, parks or other places where small children can be found?
What do we do about life-logging?
Despite the real concerns, it’s inevitable that life-logging technologies will only become more prevalent–and in the very near future. In fact, the Chinese search engine Baidu has already confirmed plans to launch its version of Glass, called Baidu Eye.
So what can citizens do? Ignore the people with the funny looking glasses? That’s not likely to be a real solution, as these technologies will only get smaller and more discreet – after partnering with a trendy glass maker like Warby Parker, isn’t it only a matter of time before a contact company like Bausch + Lomb?
Because of these very real privacy concerns, it will be essential for Google to indicate exactly how life-logging information is collected and where and how it will be stored. It’s no secret that governments around the world are keen to get their hands on the troves of data that consumer tech companies collect–transparency reports from companies like Twitter, Google, and Microsoft show increasing volumes of government requests for user data. It’s not hard to imagine how much more valuable unedited footage would be than metadata to certain interested parties. Or worse: a combination of the two.
There are also pending questions about ownership of the collected data. Does the data belong to the recorder, the person recorded, or the service provider? If I’m passively surveilled in my favourite restaurant, will I have the option to search through Google’s database and delete what has been recorded by the Glass wearer?
These questions must be worked out in some way as these lifelogging technologies become more widespread as these increasingly discrete devices make informed consent harder than ever. Life-logging technologies illustrate the critical importance of having strong privacy standards in place that provide citizens with greater control over their data, as well as ensuring that companies that collect and process our information do so transparently, responsibly and in accordance with data protection laws in the various jurisdictions it operates.
In Europe, a standard setting body on the protection of privacy and data protection, there is such a proposal — to find out more and to get involved, go to privacycampaign.eu.