Omniveillance with Google Glass

May 29th, 2013

When I wrote Omniveillance back in 2006-2007, I was very concerned with the notion of persistent, omnipresent surveillance everywhere. I chose to focus not on public surveillance, such as the ring of steel in London, but rather private surveillance implemented by companies like Google–focusing on their Google Street View cars. But one concept I could not grasp my head around was whether individuals could be conscripted into this virtual army. Cell phone cameras had already been on the market for some time at that point, and I wrote about how the snazzy new iPhone could geotag photos. Yet, I simply could not imagine that people would be able to walk around with their phones, and constantly record *everything.*

Well, now we have Google Glass. And I can see that happening very easily.

Nick Bilton has a thought-provoking article in the Times looking at how Glass, and other similar omniveillance tools, shake the way we think about privacy–and invariably the First Amendment–in public.

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.

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?

What prompted me to first write Omniveillance  was a question posed to my privacy law professor–is there anything to stop Google from recording people in Public? In other words, is there any privacy in public. The answer I got when something like this:

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.”

There is a difference between a single photo taking snapshots, or even a video camera recording, versus an entire army of glass-wearing life-bloggers, recording everything, everywhere, instantly uploading it to the cloud. As I observed some years ago:

When these torts were developed, the level of invasion into an individual’s privacy was limited by photographers making a choice to photograph an individual at the opportunity cost of not photographing someone else. With new technology, the choice is no longer which individual to photograph, but which city to photograph in its entirety.

Over the summer, I will revisit Omniveillance in light of recent developments in technology. The title will be either “Omniveillance Reloaded” or “Omniveillance Redux.” Stay tuned.