Through a Glass, darkly

A friend kindly sent me a link to Robert Scoble’s recent article arguing that privacy advocates have “overplayed their hand” in expressing their concerns about Google Glass. Quite a lot of what Scoble says in his article is factually true, but there are relevant privacy factors he chooses not to mention, and parts of his argument are just rhetoric. That’s not unexpected, because he’s a media animal: he’s made a living out of being a polemicist, but we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking that he’s presenting a balanced case, or even a comprehensive one. In the interest of good publicity, he’s dumbing privacy down to a set of (often) false oppositions.

For instance: is it both good and inevitable that public camera coverage will grow and grow? Not really. There’s no compelling reason to equate a social norm with a social good. So the assertion that “our society is already used to having cameras EVERYWHERE and we like it”  is just a bit of unverifiable nonsense. Which society? All societies in which Google Glass will be marketed?

By the way, who defines ‘public’? Does ‘public’ mean that anyone has right of access to a place? Or that everyone there has no expectation of privacy? And privacy from whom? If I’m somewhere that is covered by municipal CCTV, should I expect local retailers to have access to that footage? If I’m in a mall, owned by one company, operated by another, and franchised to yet more… who should I expect to see that footage? And should I expect it to be live-streamed to the local police station?

Privacy isn’t an undifferentiated generalisation: it is nuanced and contextual. Our expectations of privacy can be graduated, and depend on many factors that don’t make for good polemics – so Scoble ignores them.

The regulation of CCTV and other kinds of media capture is still immature, and by no means consistent. To say “in California it’s illegal to record your voice without consent” and move on, as if that both describes and solves the problem, is just laughable.

“Dear Mr Scoble,
Some jerk keeps keying my car when I park it on the street. Is it legal for me to put a video camera in the car to find out who it is?”

There’s no sound-bite answer to that question, so let’s ignore the issue…

But all that aside, there is a relevant difference between, say, my filming you using a video camera and my filming you using Glass, and Scoble knows this full well. The difference is Google, and Google’s terms and conditions. All the data captured via Glass goes to Google. I haven’t seen what rights Google claims over that data, but I doubt they are any less comprehensive than the rights it claims over any other data that passes through Google’s servers. My expectation is that it will be facially-recognised, geo-located, aggregated, linked, mined and generally exploited in ways that the people in the footage have no way to influence. After all, if there’s any kind of contract here, it’s between Google and the Glass-wearer, not between Google and third-party individuals.

Scoble’s recurrent argument is that, in focussing on Google Glass, privacy advocates are missing the point, and ignoring abuses of privacy elsewhere, such as in the “creepy” world of ‘questionable marketing techniques’; I’m sorry, Robert, but where do you think the raw data for behavioural advertising comes from? Google Glass gives Google a direct, real-time, locatable feed of data about third parties, willingly contributed by the Glass wearer. That’s the point – not whether or not there’s an “I am recording” light on the Glasses.

That’s not to say the world of data aggregation, data mining and targeted advertising doesn’t deserve critical examination – of course it does. But to argue that that absolves Google Glass from scrutiny is just sticking your head in the sand. And that probably voids the warranty on your Glasses.