Google Glass: just because you can…

As a bit of a geek, and a some-time game player, it’s hard not to like the look of Google Glass. Sure, it makes you look a little dorky in its current incarnation (even if you’re Sergey Brin, as in the picture below) but people like me are used to looking dorky, and don’t really care that much about it. What it does, however, is cool, and cool in a big way. We get heads-up displays that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, a chance to feel like Arnie in the Terminator, with the information about everything we can see immediately available. It’s cool – in a dorky, sci-fi kind of way, and for those of us brought up on a diet of SF it’s close to irresistible.

Sergey Brin

And yet, there’s something in the back of my mind – well, OK, pretty close to the front of my mind now – that says that we should be thinking twice about pushing forward with developments like this. Just because we can make something as cool as Google Glass, doesn’t mean that we should make it. There are implications to developments like this, and risks attached to it, both direct and indirect.

Risks to the wearer’s privacy

First we need to be clear what Google Glass does – and how it’s intended to be used. The idea is that the little camera on the headset essentially ‘sees’ what you see. It then analyses what it can see, and provides the information about what you see – or information related to it. In one of the promotional videos for it, for example, as the wearer looks at a subway station, the Glass alerts the wearer to the fact that there’s a delay on the subway, so he’d better walk. Then he looks at a poster for a concert – it analyses the poster, then links directly to a ticket agency that lets him buy a ticket for the concert.

Cool? Sure, but think about what’s going on in the background – because there’s a lot. First of all, and almost without saying, the Google Glass headset is tracking the wearer: what we can ‘geolocation’. It knows exactly where you are, whenever you’re using it. There are implications to that – I’ve written about them before – and this is yet another step towards making geolocation the ‘norm’. The idea is that Google (and others) want to know exactly where you are at all times – and of course that means that others could find out, whether for good purposes or bad.

Secondly, it means that Google are able to analyse what you are looking at – and profile you, with huge accuracy, in the real world, the way to a certain extent they already do in the online world. And, again, if Google can profile you, others can get access to that profile – either through legal means or illegal. You might have consented to giving others access, in one of those long Terms and Conditions documents you scrolled down without reading and clicked ‘OK’ to. The government might ask Google for access to your feed, in the course of some investigation or other. A hacker might even hack into your system to take a look…

…and this last risk, the risk of hacking, is a very real one. Weaknesses in Google Glass have already surfaced. As the Guardian reported a few days ago:

“Augmented reality glasses could be compromised by a hacker who would be able to see and hear everything the wearer does”

This particular weakness may or may not turn out to be a real risk – but the potential is there. Where data exists, and where systems exist, they are hackable – Google Glass, by its nature, could be a clear target. And what they get, as a result, could be seriously dangerous and damaging.

Risks to others’ privacy

Equally worrying are the risks to those the wearer looks at. There are specific risks – anyone who knows about the concept of ‘creepshots’ – surreptitiously taken photographs, usually of young women and girls, up skirts, down blouses etc, posted on the internet – should be see the possibilities immediately. As Gizmodo put it:

“Once these things stop being a rich-guy novelty and start actually hitting the streets, the rise in creepshots is going to be worse than any we’ve ever seen before”

They’re right – and the makers of Google Glass should be aware of the possibilities. Some people are even working on developing an app to allow you to take a picture using Google Glass just by winking, which would extend the possibilities of creepshots one creepy step forward – at the moment, at least, voice commands are needed to take shots, alerting the victim, but with winking or other surreptitious command systems even that protection would be gone.

Creepshots are just one extreme – the other opportunities for invasions of privacy are huge. In mitigation, some say ‘Oh, at least you can see that people are wearing Google Glass, so you know they’re filming you’. Well, yes, but there are lots of problems with that. Firstly, should we really need to check the glasses of everyone who can see us? Secondly, this is just the first generation of Google Glass. What will the next one look like? Cooler, less like something out of Star Trek? And the technology could be used in ways that are much less obvious – hack and disguise your own Google Glass and make it look like a pair of ordinary sunglasses? Not hard for a hacker. They’ll be available on the net within a pretty short time.

Normalising surveillance

All these, however, are just details. The real risk is at a much higher level – but it may be a danger that’s already been discounted. It’s the risk that our society goes down a route where surveillance is the norm. Where we expect to be filmed, to have our every movement, our every action, our every word followed, analysed, compiled, and aggregated for the service of companies that want to make money out of us and governments that want to control us. Sure, Google Glass is cool, and sure it does some really cool stuff, but is it really worth that?

Now there may be ways to mitigate all these risks, and there may be ways that we can find to help overcome some of the issues. I’d like it to be so, because I love the coolness of the technology. Right now, though, I’m not convinced that we have – or even that we necessarily will be able to. It means, for me, I think we need to remember that just because we can do things like this, it doesn’t mean that we should.

23 thoughts on “Google Glass: just because you can…

  1. Nice piece, Paul. Your last point, however, doesn’t convince me. I would assume if Google Glass is the consumer manifestation of a technology, that technology will have been used for quite some time already. Normalising our overt acceptance of it, maybe. But normalising its usage per se – I doubt any such normalisation is needed. I bet plenty of organisations have been using such technologies for quite a while now! Perhaps, in this sense, Google Glass is actually a good thing: raising our awareness that the technology is out there …


    1. I’m not sure that’s as true for Glass as it is for a lot of tech. Glass can only function with the kind of infrastructure that Google can provide – it’s the commercial driving the military/police functions here, I suspect, but I may well be wrong!

      I agree, though, that it also brings the whole issue to the fore – and I plan to use that !

  2. Keep thinking that Google Glass could usher in a Universal Panopticon, where all of Society, not just Big Brother, is keeping an eye on all the rest of society. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Omnes! (thank you Google for correcting my Latin). But like I’ve tweeted before, it requires a moral society, and a Spartan intolerance of privacy.

  3. I’d be perfectly OK with Google Glass if it came with a hat that had a BIG flashing light on top and played an audio fair processing notice.
    Making that a mandatory requirement for wearing one in public (and perhaps making it an offence not to) should cause cognitive dissonance in the hipster community.

  4. The audio would, of course, have to be recorded in the shrill tones of a Dalek:
    “Attention! Attention! Audio and visual recording device in operation. Data may be transferred outside the European Economic Area and may be disclosed to unidentified categories of third party. Attention!!! Attention!!!”

    (and all the while a yellow light flashes from the hat on their head).

  5. Excellent point. Unfortunately, “do it, because you can (and because you can make money doing it)” is the mantra of the business world. Consequences are for other people to deal with.

  6. Everything you say about potential use by hackers is true. If you have seen the Japanese animation Ghost in the Shell then you see that Masumune Shirow was predicting all this and more (ghost hacks etc) two decades ago. Another use of hacking might be for a taxi company to hack the subway info and convince the wearers (wrongly) that the subway is late and they need a taxi instead. Ultimately, everything that can be done through technology will be done. People’s concept of what is private and what is public space will change to accommodate the changes in technology and behaviour. This has already happened with Facebook. People (especially younger people) have made a balanced decision about the relative benefits and disadvantages of the loss of privacy which Facebook brings and decided the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In any case once their are pictures of everybody blind drunk on the Internet it is no longer something to be embarrassed about. The ultimate benefit of Google glass is that you could record every moment of your life, store it on a huge database ad be able to relive any part of it at will in your old age. Few people will be able to resist the sorts of temptations such as technology brings. Your first kiss, your first day of your first job- your father and mothers first meeting – all of that there forever.
    Rather than worry about IF something is got g to happen we should work on the assumption that it will and plan for how we are going to get the most from it and how it will change our lives and the way we think about our existence in a positive way.

  7. want to know what bothers me the most? one night, a young teenage girl gets drunk, as is the norm among youngsters.. to go out and have some good old unregulated fun. They have a bit too much and end up vomiting outside a bar. They look a mess, and what`s worse they are having a problem in the clothing department and more than would be recommendable for a chaste young damsel is being exposed. In the normal world, this event would be forgotten, consigned to the memories of the few friends that accompanied her and a few lads that maybe jeered or laughed as they walked past, and subsequently got distracted by the next thing they saw. Now fast forward to google world. In google world, one of those trendy cool guys happened to be wearing a google glass, perhaps generation 2 or 3, which endlessly records and uploads everything the wearer sees to the web, and embeds a personalising stamp on the data stream for eternity. In google`s world, that girl cannot simply forget that night, because every social interaction they have ever since then is tainted by that one event, as potential employers, teachers, shopkeepers, family and friends alike will have access to the embarrasing incident with a swift consultation of the all-knowing almanac of google glass. In google`s world, that girl might as well be branded with the words drunken slut across her head. This is just a trivial example, but I for one, do not want to live in google world.

    1. Thanks – it’s a good example, and one that’s only a small step away from where we are already at. Add Google Glass to the Steubenville rape case, and the whole thing gets even worse. The real question for me, though, is whether there’s anything much we can really do about it. I’m still far from sure – it may all be inevitable, and we may just have to find a way to adapt.

  8. At the moment there is a chance it could get photoed on a Smartphone and uploaded. As I said in my earlier post one everyone has embarrassing things on the net they won’t be embarrassing any more. This Saturday’s Times. Had a story about an American politician who accidentally posted a shot of himself with an erection on Twitter which he meant to send to a follower privately. Despite the scandal and national attention this got he is now back in politics. The big problem is that a lot of people who have to grown up with new technology are treating stuff on the web they would have done in the days when access to media was rare. In the future stuff like you describe will be of little interest as it will be unremarkable and people will be more likely to criticise those who make a big deal of it.

    1. Yes, this is concept I call ‘Mutually Assured Humiliation’: ultimately we may all have humiliating stuff on the net, and so we’ll all start to ignore it. It may indeed be that this is the way things go – but on the way there could be (and probably will be) a huge amount of harm to a very large number of people.

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