SciTechTalk: As Google Glass appears, does personal privacy vanish?

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International  |  April 28, 2013 at 6:31 AM
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Every jump in technology brings with it adjustments society must make and rules it must develop if the new paradigm is to be considered acceptable, and Google Glass -- a wearable computer that can record video surreptitiously -- presents just such a paradigm shift.

Even Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is being open about it, saying it will require a "new etiquette," admitting there are places a Google Glass wearer shouldn't, well, wear it.

"There are obviously places where Google Glasses are inappropriate," he said last Thursday at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government of the devices that "can record video surreptitiously and bring up information that only the wearer can see."

The matter might be considered a non-issue when we already live in a world where seemingly everyone already carries a camera in public, courtesy of the almost-ubiquitous smartphone.

But there's a difference: When a smartphone user is taking a picture, it's fairly obvious. The phone out is out and being pointed at something -- or somebody -- with the recognizable (usually two-handed) grip that says, "I'm taking a picture, everybody."

But Google Glass is different. It's worn in the same way whether it's being used for taking a picture or not.

Picture this: You board a bus or a subway, and after a few minutes you notice a person across from you, a perfect stranger, holding a smartphone in that picture grip and pointing it directly at you.

Would you be angry, demand an explanation, ask him/her to stop? Almost certainly.

Now consider a possible future scenario, if Google Glass becomes -- as is likely -- the next "must-have" item for early adopters: You board your normal public transport and notice that perhaps three or four fellow passengers are wearing Google Glass. They're looking around innocently enough, but perhaps the gaze of one of them lingers on you a bit longer than is comfortable.

Is it because there's an attraction? Is your clothing being judged? Is a conversation about to start?

Or are you being immortalized in snapshot or video? And where is the new etiquette, because if you are being documented, you have no way of knowing.

The new etiquette might say Google Glass can only be worn when actually in use, but that's unlikely to happen. One of the selling points of the device is certainly going to be the ease of wear all day as a personal digital helper.

A technology that can be so discrete and, if widely adopted, would become almost "invisible," raises serious questions of personal privacy.

No one is likely to be surprised at the first news report headlined: "Google Glass wearer assaulted on city bus, accused of spying on passengers."

Etiquette is a gentle, even polite word -- perhaps too gentle and polite -- to truly handle the problems we can envision if we find ourselves living in a society of camera-wearing citizens.

Welcome to the next paradigm.

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