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12/2/2013
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Google Glass And Surveillance Etiquette

There's no expectation of privacy in public, but I do expect not to be recorded by wearable technology and smartphones.

Google Glass was at the center of a dust-up over privacy last week, when a man was asked to remove his Google Glasses or leave a restaurant. This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Glass excites debate about privacy and public spaces in ways that cameras and smartphones don’t because Glass makes surreptitious recording so easy.

The story that reported the restaurant incident attracted a host of comments, with some supporting the ban against Glass and others decrying its futility. One recurring argument against the ban is that there is no expectation of privacy in a public area.

I agree there is no expectation of privacy in public. But my public presence has—or at least had—finite limitations. If I’m in a restaurant or on a city sidewalk, I can only be seen by other people in the same area at the same time. Once I leave a public area, my presence only remains within the memory of others who shared the space with me.

This ephemeral quality to public presence is being challenged by the use of recording devices. A recording device that captures audio and video, which can then be uploaded to the Internet, explodes the physical limitations of our public selves. A record can be made available to anyone, for an indefinite amount of time.

For example, if I were at a restaurant with my children and one of them threw a tantrum, my embarrassment is limited to a constrained time and place. But if someone records the tantrum and uploads it to YouTube, that record has the potential for unlimited exposure.

I find that transformation disturbing, and based on some of the backlash to Google Glass, so do others. There’s a general sentiment that recording people without consent is unacceptable. I may not have an expectation of privacy, but I believe I shouldn’t have to accept that my behavior will be captured and shared for global consumption.

So what about smartphones? Why is Glass different? I think it’s because there are cues that we detect when people are shooting video or photos with a phone: the way they hold the phone, the way their eyes fix on the screen, and so on. Google Glass hasn’t been around long enough, or put into  wide enough use, for its own social cues to emerge. Thus, Glass raises suspicions about the wearer’s intent and actions.

It’s entirely possible to make surreptitious recordings with smartphones, but we’ve become habituated to their presence so they don’t trigger the same alarm as wearable technology such as Glass.

Does the potential for alarm mean Glass should be banned? That wouldn’t bother me because I’m no fan of Glass. The technology strikes me as the forward edge of the dystopian future in which all human interaction is mediated and commoditized by corporations. But that's just me.

So rather than banning Glass, I think public spaces would be better served by having explicit policies against recording people without their consent, regardless of device. Those policies aren’t necessarily going to stop such behavior from happening, but it does plainly state a standard of etiquette.

As we become habituated to documentation, social sharing and general surveillance, that standard may change. In the meantime, I’ll feel a lot better if you would please take off your Glasses when we meet.

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