Privacy and wearable computers

May 28, 2013 |

In Protectors of privacy and proprietary are beginning to speak out, originally a  New York Times story, the issue of the privacy invasive technology is discussed in a sensible, balanced manner.  Google Glass and any other wearable computers have the potential to interfere with privacy. They may compromise security for much the same reason why cameras are banned in certain governmental buildings, law courts and parts of airports . Their use may threaten intellectual property; a for instance is wearing the computer while a product is being made.  Used in conjunction with a suitable app and using specially designed alogorithims a wearable computer with a camera facility could be much more effective, read damaging, than a video camera or audio recorder, or both combined.  The law is struggling to keep up with these developments and legislatures are non plussed.

The article provides:

Perhaps the best way to predict how society will react to so-called wearable computing devices is to read the Dr Seuss children’s story The Butter Battle Book.

The book, which was published in 1984, is about two cultures at odds. On one side are the Zooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side down. In opposition are the Yooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side up. As the story progresses, their different views lead to an arms race and potentially an all-out war.

Well, the Zooks and the Yooks may have nothing on wearable computing fans, who are starting to sport devices that can record everything going on around them with a wink or subtle click, and the people who promise to violently confront anyone wearing one of these devices.

I’ve experienced both sides of this debate with Google’s internet-connected glasses, Google Glass. Last year, after Google unveiled its wearable computer, I had a brief opportunity to test it and was awe-struck by the potential of this technology. Then, a few months later, at a work-related party, I saw several people wearing Glass, their cameras hovering above their eyes as we talked. I was startled by how much Glass invades people’s privacy, leaving them two choices: stare at a camera that is constantly staring back at them, or leave the room.

This is not just a Google issue. Other gadgets have plenty of privacy-invading potential. Memoto, a tiny, automatic camera that looks like a pin you can wear on a shirt, can snap two photos a minute and later upload it to an online service. The makers of the device boast that it comes with one year of free storage and call it “a searchable and shareable photographic memory”.

Apple is also working on wearable computing products, filing numerous patents for a “heads-up display” and camera. The company is also expected to release an iWatch later this year. And several other start-ups in Silicon Valley are building products that are designed to capture photos of people’s lives.

But what about people who don’t want to be recorded? Don’t they get a say?

Deal with it, wearable computer advocates say. “When you’re in public, you’re in public. What happens in public, is the very definition of it,” said Jeff Jarvis, the author of the book Public Parts and a journalism professor at the City University of New York. “I don’t want you telling me that I can’t take pictures in public without your permission.”

Jarvis said we’ve been through a similar ruckus about cameras in public before, in the 1890s when Kodak cameras started to appear in parks and on city streets.

The New York Times addressed people’s concerns at the time in an article in August 1899, about a group of camera users, the so-called Kodak fiends, who snapped pictures of women with their new cameras.

“About the cottage colony there is a decided rebellion against the promiscuous use of photographing machines,” The Times wrote from Newport, Rhode Island. “Threats are being made against any one who continues to use cameras as freely.”

In another article, a woman pulled a knife on a man who tried to take her picture, “demolishing” the camera before going on her way.

This all sounds a bit like the Yooks and Zooks battling over their buttered bread.

Society eventually adapted to these cameras, but not without some struggle, a few broken cameras and lots of court battles. Today we live in a world with more than a billion smartphones with built-in cameras. But, there is a difference between a cellphone and a wearable computer; the former goes in your pocket or purse, the latter hangs on your body.

“Most people are not talking about privacy here, they are talking about social appropriateness,” said Thad Starner, who is the director of the Contextual Computing Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a technical adviser to the Google Glass team. He said he believed most people are respectful and would not use their wearable computers inappropriately.

Starner has been experimenting with different types of wearable computers for more than 20 years, and he said that although some people are initially sceptical of the computer above his eye, they soon feel comfortable around the device, and him. “Within two weeks people start to ignore it,” he said. Over the years, his wearable computers have become less obtrusive, going from bulky, very visible contraptions, to today’s sleeker Google Glass.

Starner said privacy protections would have to be built into these computers. “The way Glass is designed, it has a transparent display so everyone can see what you’re doing.” He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

But not everyone is so thoughtful, as I learned this month at the Google I/O developer conference when people lurked around every corner, including the bathroom, wearing their glasses that could take a picture with a wink.

By the end of The Butter Battle Book, the arms race has escalated to a point at which both sides have developed bombs that can destroy the world. As two old men, a Yook and a Zook, debate what to do next, the story ends with one saying: “We’ll just have to be patient. We’ll see, we’ll see.”

The wearable cameras the N Y Times piece referred to was the subject of an Economist article, Get a lifelog. which provides:

WILL future historians ever understand how dull and pointless life was in the 21st century? Yes, if a new wearable camera catches on. Memoto, a Swedish start-up, is selling a stamp-sized camera that you can pin on your shirt (see picture). It takes photographs every 30 seconds, ensuring that no experience—however mundane—will go undocumented. The device also has an app and cloud-storage, so your pictorial record of commuting, shopping and preparing pot noodles can be searched and shared.

Something about this idea appeals. Memoto tried to raise $50,000 last year on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform. It raked in more than $500,000. The firm also obtained €500,000 ($655,000) in seed funding from Passion Capital, a British venture-capital firm, enabling it to build a prototype camera.

Exposing the product to the public at such an early stage generated useful feedback. Surprise, surprise, many potential customers are worried about privacy. After a lively debate on Reddit, a web-based discussion board, the firm dropped plans to have pictures automatically uploaded to the cloud.

Those who are unwittingly snapped may be unhappy, too. Unlike a human, Memoto’s device cannot ask for permission before taking a picture. It could therefore run afoul of strict privacy laws in countries such as Germany. Memoto says it will inform its customers when they might need other people’s permission to store images of them.

To make money, the firm plans to sell the cameras for $279 a pop and then offer support services, such as storing pictures, for a subscription fee which has yet to be determined. The balance between the two revenue streams will be tweaked once Memoto has a better idea of what people want. There are no plans to sell ads, despite the wealth of data that will be created about Memoto users’ habits.

At the start of this month Memoto had around 2,000 orders from Kickstarter backers and an additional 2,000 through its own website. But because of the inevitable teething problems that come with designing new software, it has had to postpone its first shipping date several times and is now declining to set a launch date.

Instead it posts regular progress updates on its blog. Memoto’s Kickstarter page is filled with largely sympathetic commentary about the delays, including one post from a backer who wants to know whether her camera will be ready in time for a summer hiking trip.

Lifelogging, as it is called, could prove popular. Most of us know, in our heart of hearts, that future historians will not be interested in what we did last week. But our mothers may be

There is an enthusiastic lobby who accuse those who raise any sort of a issue outside the technological as being Jermiahs, Luddites or whatever other synonym for naysayer they can google on line.  Google Glass: What’s With All The Hate?  typifies this response.  

Google Glass isn’t even on sale yet and there is already a noticeable backlash against Google’s first experiment in wearable computing. It’s odd to see a product that was greeted with so much hype a year ago endure the love-hate cycle so quickly – even though there are only a few thousand units in the wild. Sure, we’ve done our share to popularize “glasshole” as a way to describe its users, but the backlash seems to go beyond the usual insidery tech circles.

The Glass backlash, of course, first hit the mainstream with the Saturday Night Live sketch I’ve embedded below, but last week, I also came across this piece on about Glass etiquette. With Glass being as new as it is, that’s a topic worth discussing, just like it was when cellphones first arrived. What struck me more than the story itself, though, were the comments on it.

Mind you – these are mainstream CNN readers, not techies. Some are simply misinformed (“I was at a local conference of small to medium businesses last week and most of the businesses have already banned the product entirely. It’s not even permitted to be brought in the businesses. Most of the bans came from employee requests, and I don’t blame them. I’ve banned it from my own business too.”), some are outright hostile (“This crap makes me happy to know that I’ll die someday… where is society heading?” – but that’s not wonder on the Internet, after all) and many worry that somebody will use Glass to take pictures of their private parts in the men’s bathroom (“Now I’ve got more to worry about when they guy at the urinal next to me decided he wants to be chatty instead of keeping his sight forward…”).

Indeed, it seems privacy is the main issue people have with Glass, besides the fact that it does take some getting used to. The fact that the camera is front and center on the device makes people uneasy. Google’s mistake, I think, was not to put an LED next to the camera that indicates when it’s taking pictures and videos. Walking through New York with Glass a few weeks ago, I had a few random people come up to me to ask me about Glass. None of them were techies, but they were quite aware of what I was wearing. Three out of four, however, assumed that I was recording them while I was talking to them. That’s definitely an issue Google will have to fix.

Earlier this month, Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, linked Glass to surveillance drones in an op-ed piece on CNN. “Imagine that millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them,” he wrote. The fact that Chertoff advocated for more full-body scanners in U.S. airports is the kind of irony and cognitive dissonance that has recently been a hallmark of American politics. It’s these kinds of comments, however, that are stoking the privacy fears around Glass, no matter how unfounded they are.

All of this, of course, comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Glass’s capabilities and the fact that few who write about it have even tried it definitely adds to this. Glass can’t record everything around you. The video feature, by default, takes 10-second videos when you activate it and you have to actually press a button on the device if you want to extend this time. The battery, however, would die pretty quickly if you just let it record everything as you walk down the street.

Glass, in its current iteration, is essentially a wearable web browser with Google Now that can also take videos and images. Nothing you photograph is immediately uploaded anywhere. You have to explicitly share photos or videos with a friend or an app. Processing, for the most part, happens in the cloud, not on the device. Glass is more about getting news stories, email, social network updates and other information pushed to you than it is about you sharing photos and videos.

Earlier this week, we also heard about a face-recognition API for Glass. It can’t work in real time yet, so you’d have to snap a picture, send it to the developers’ servers and get a response back, but it’s that kind of technology that Glass can enable that is definitely creating a bit of unease.

The fact that few people have tried Glass also means that there are plenty of these myths around that, over time, become unquestioned by those who haven’t tried it. Google didn’t help itself here, given that some of its first demo videos showed a device that was far more capable than what’s actually available right now. Its later videos were more realistic, but it’s the first one that people will remember.

So while some of this early – and somewhat sudden – hate for Glass sure stems from the fact that it’s new, only available to a few people and looks a bit odd – the real issue is simply that people believe it’s a little privacy-invasion machine that sits above your right eye. It really isn’t, but until Google puts a little LED at the front that indicates when it records a message, people won’t back down from this idea.

The nub of the above article is that none of the complainers have used Google Glass, it isn’t even on the market yet so how can you say what it will do, or not do.  The author acknowledges however that GLass can be used for surveillance and recording when he says “Glass can’t record everything around you. The video feature, by default, takes 10-second videos when you activate it and you have to actually press a button on the device if you want to extend this time. The battery, however, would die pretty quickly if you just let it record everything as you walk down the street.”  What he is saying is that in its current iteration the Glass can’t do what its detractors say it can do.  But the platform is there.  Improve the battery life, storage and power and why can’t it do what people fear.  The issue is then what to do now, when legislators have time for thoughtful reflection and an ability to mould proper regulation and adequate protections for all.   

Banning the use of  Google Glass is a simplistic and ultimately futile response to a potentially useful device.  Similarly doing nothing would allow for abusive behaviour which has both a civic and financial impact on those who do not wish to be under immediate and intense surveillance, who wish to have a zone of privacy or have an economic interest in not having business activities recorded.  It is erroneous to argue that what happens in public has no right to any privacy.  The nature of these technological developments provides for a more intense, more focused and far more invasive interference with a person’s privacy.  It is not an extension of being in the background of a photograph in a park or even the subject of such a photograph. Proponents of the technology argue that it is all about socially appropriate usage of the equipment and that will be defined with time and adaptation of societal norms.  That is fine as far as it goes.  Societal norms are an important part of how individuals relate to each other and behave.  But without some form of enforceable right by those who feel those norms have been violated or control on those who use data collected in violation of those norms the likelihood of widespread abuse is obvious.  The desire for data is almost unquenchable by marketers for example.  Data is digital gold dust when it can be collected via users of the Glasses through, say, cookies.  And then there is the more prosaic use of data by one citizen in relation to, or against, another.       

One Response to “Privacy and wearable computers”

  1. Body Cameras

    Body cameras are designed for capturing all what a normal camera cannot. It provides special features and are very helpful in night also.

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