Google’s goggles spark fears of ‘end of privacy’

Through a glass darkly: A glimpse of how the world would look filtered through Google Glass.

Imagine a computer that hovers above your eyebrow, interacting with your surroundings and responding to your voice. Google Glass is an impressive gadget – but how intrusive might it be?

‘Okay Glass, record a video.’ Depending on who you ask, these five words could announce either an exciting new age of computing or the dawn of a sinister, Orwellian future.

Google Glass is a miniature computer that is worn like a pair of glasses. The transparent screen is fixed just above the eyeline so that wearers can view it simply by glancing upward. You can use it to make calls, send messages, look up directions and search the internet. It is complete with an audio recorder and a camera that can record both films and photos.

It’s a nifty gadget. But many people believe that it is also much more than that: more than any technology to date, Google Glass allows users to integrate the internet into their everyday experience of reality.

If you have a question that Google can resolve, simply ask it aloud and the answer appears in front of you. If you are lost, your Glass will provide you instantly with an interactive map. Want to record a photo or video? Just say the word and Glass will capture images of whatever you can see.

And that last feature, for many people, is a problem. Should people really be able to privately record anything within their field of vision without their companions’ knowledge? And if a hacker were to gain access to the computer, they would gain access not only to searches and personal data, but to everything that the wearer has seen.

One commentator has labelled Google Glass ‘the end of privacy’. Another goes even further: it is, he says, ‘an evil, evil device’. Now, this chorus of concerns has gained a powerful voice: the Congress of the United States.

‘We are curious,’ states a letter from the Congressional privacy caucus, ‘whether this technology could impact on the privacy of the average American.’ The caucus has challenged Google to answer eight questions on how they will ensure privacy is maintained – but even if the internet giant satisfies politicians, many will remain deeply worried about the implications of Glass.

Dark glasses?

For the most anxious critics, these are not the kind of worries that can be dispelled by a few tweaks to Google’s privacy policies. Even if the security is watertight, they say, this technology ominously blurs the boundaries between reality and the internet. Today the computers are fixed in front of our eyes; soon they could be implanted behind them. Google will become an extension of our brains, with unlimited access to everything we experience and do.

Nonsense, say optimists: this is just a rationalisation of the knee-jerk fear people always feel when they encounter new technology. At worst, Google Glass is a clever gimmick; at best, it is an innovation that could enhance life for all of us. Enough doom and gloom, they say: if you don’t want Google Glass, just don’t buy it.

You Decide

  1. Would you buy a pair of Google’s glasses?
  2. ‘Google will soon have more power over our lives than any government.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In pairs, try to come up with an idea for a Google Glass app. If you have time, present your idea to the rest of the class.
  2. Imagine you are one of the US lawmakers who are questioning Google on their privacy policies. Write down three questions you would like them to answer.

Some People Say...

“We need less of the internet in our lives today, not more of it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This sounds awesome. Where can I get one?
At the moment they are only in testing stage, so they’re not available on the open market. Google are running competitions in which you can win an early version of Glass; the first stage of entries has closed, but there will probably be more opportunities soon.
And if I don’t win those competitions?
It’s set for release at the end of this year or the beginning of the next. But you might want to wait for it to get a little cheaper before you take the plunge: in its development stages, Google Glass costs a daunting £1,000. But according to many experts, it might not be long before similar wearable computers are as common as smartphones.

Word Watch

Orwellian
George Orwell’s 1984 imagined a future in which authoritarian governments had installed recording equipment in every corner, so that secret police could watch citizens’ every move. This novel introduced the concept of ‘Big Brother’, and today the word ‘Orwellian’ describes the idea of pervasive, mind-controlling surveillance and propaganda.
Evil
This is a reference to Google’s corporate motto: ‘Don’t be evil’. As it has grown, the internet titan has come under increasing criticism for the way in which it gathers users’ data for advertising purposes and processes results in secret ways.
Congress
The American version of parliament. Congress consists of two chambers of elected politicians: the House of Representatives, containing 435 members, and the Senate, containing 100.

Subjects

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