Google Glass fans need a reality check (and the Internet needs seat belts)

Being in public doesn't mean you give up all rights to your personal privacy -- no matter how cool that techno gadget might be.

There’s been a disturbing trend lately in the public discussion about privacy, mostly surrounding Google Glass.

On one hand, we have people who are getting their knickers in a knot over the privacy implications of a device that could, at least theoretically, record images and audio in virtually any place and automatically upload it to the Internet. Admittedly, some of these folks are a bit more hysterical than others.

On the other hand, we have the pro-Glass crowd, which is doing its best to paint its opponents as horse-and-buggy-loving dinosaurs who need to get the hell out of the way of progress and profits or get flung into the tar pits. 

One recent example is from Harvard Business Review, where consultant-author Larry Downes compares calls for privacy legislation surrounding Google Glass to the ‘red flag’ laws of the 1890s, which required drivers to have someone to walk in front of them waving a red flag to warn others that a horseless carriage was approaching. 

In retrospect, of course, Red Flag Laws always look ridiculous. But in the heat generated by torch-wielding mobs, the absurdity of calls to do something — anything — to stop the march of progress aren't always so easy to counter.

So let’s forget about red flag laws, Larry, and talk about seat belts. The first seat belts were invented in 1885. They weren’t required as standard equipment in cars until 1968, and drivers weren’t legally required to use them until the 1980s. That 100-year-gap was due almost entirely to opposition from car manufacturers.

How many millions of people had to die in car accidents because someone was afraid to halt the march of progress? Even today, some people cite seatbelt laws as further steps down the “slippery slope of tyranny.” (Talk about looking ridiculous.)

Another example: New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton, who compares the pro- and anti-Glass crowds to characters in Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book.

The book, which was published in 1984, is about two cultures at odds. On one side are the Zooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side down. In opposition are the Yooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side up. As the story progresses, their different views lead to an arms race and potentially an all-out war.... Well, the Zooks and the Yooks may have nothing on wearable computing fans, who are starting to sport devices that can record everything going on around them with a wink or subtle click, and the people who promise to confront violently anyone wearing one of these devices.

He then goes on to quote technology cheerleader Jeff Jarvis, who compared anti-Glassers to people who opposed Kodak cameras in, yes, the 1890s. In the eyes of technology sophisticates, privacy advocates are still partying like it’s 1899. Per Bilton:

But what about people who don’t want to be recorded? Don’t they get a say?

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.”

Well Jeff, hate to break it to you, but there are plenty of circumstances in which you are not legally allowed to take photos in public. You can’t take pictures at most professional sporting events or in shopping malls without permission. You can’t take photos of airport security or most transportation facilities. You can’t point your telephoto lens into someone’s bedroom window or inside their clothing, even if you’re standing in a public place. You can’t take a picture of someone else using a public restroom. And you can’t use people’s photos taken anywhere for commercial reasons (like advertising) without their permission.

Whether or not you agree with these rules they do exist, and usually for good reason. So why should Google Glass be exempt? Why shouldn’t we draw a line around private surveillance and offer some rights to those being surveilled? Why can’t I say, “I don’t want you taking pictures of me in public without my permission”? Why do the Glassholes' rights trump mine?

Yes, we all have a lowered expectation of privacy in public. But lowered isn’t the same as nothing at all. There is a fundamental difference between observing someone else in public and recording them. There’s an even larger gap between recording something and uploading it to unknown numbers of people online, let alone sharing all the information associated with it – date, time, geo-location, and possibly facial recognition metrics – with the world’s most insatiable data glutton.

This is not a silly law about flags or an inane dispute about butter. This is about what happens to our data. This is about creating a seat belt for the Internet.

Debate is healthy. Debate is good. And now is the right time to have that debate – before this technology becomes ubiquitous and inescapable, not afterward. To belittle one side doesn’t help anyone except maybe Google. Really, they don’t need your help. They’re doing just fine without it.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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