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“Much Seeing Eyes,” “The All Seeing Eye” and the price tag on privacy

If it is meant to be seen through then glass should be transparent. It can be darkened, or colorful, but if somebody wants to use it for seeing, transparency is important. A failure in this regard can result in furrowed brows, raised questions, and an attempt to wipe the offending smudges away. Though there are no actual glass lenses in Google Glass, it seems that more voices are increasingly calling attention to the numerous worrisome smudges on the Glass.

While predictions of building resistance to Glass may be somewhat overblown (more on that here), it is still the case that more groups are beginning to raise concerns regarding Google’s upcoming wearable tech device. Amongst the latest groups is one that has quite a bit of heft: the US government. A letter from the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus was sent to Larry Page of Google, expressing several concerns about Glass, and asking for Page to respond to eight questions specifically regarding privacy.

Though there are eight questions raised by the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus (BCC) they all boil down to roughly one concern: what is Google doing to address privacy concerns related to Glass? Some of the questions focused on Google’s less-than-perfect track record of obtaining data in the past, some ponder where the information will be stored, and others mulled over the possibility of facial recognition software being a function of Glass. To restate, eight questions posing the same concern: how can we trust Google?

The BCC letter and Google’s quasi-response are discussed (briefly) in Claire Cain Miller’s New York Times article “Lawmakers Show Concerns About Google’s New Glasses” (which is notable mainly for linking to the letter from the BCC). The article, like the letter, cites past privacy concerns including a recent settlement that saw Google agree to pay $7 million to 38 states relating to information gathered over unsecured W-Fi networks. The article also features some of Google’s responses to the letter’s concerns, specifically as voiced by the “director of product management for Google Glass” Steve Lee, to whom the Times’ piece attributes the claim:

“Google followed all its privacy and data collection policies with Glass, he [Lee] said, and built social cues into the device to help prevent certain privacy violations.”

Which is what Google has been saying all along: don’t worry, you can trust us. And here it is also worth remembering that the $7 million settlement invoked by the BCC and the Times article may sound like a lot of money to most of us…but for a company like Google the occasional multi-million dollar payout is just part of doing business. That minor fiscal slap does not threaten Google’s overall profitability, does nothing to threaten the company on an existential level, and puts Google in a perfect position to fully analyze the cost of certain types of endeavors. After all, from Google’s perspective the amount of data they likely gathered in the offending situation was probably worth the price tag.

The question that emerges is not about a settlement therefore, but about image. To what extent is Google’s image threatened, on an existential level, by the type of press that has been dogging Glass? Even if the bar that preemptively banned Glass received a lot of media attention there has not yet been massive pushback against the device, largely because the device has not truly arrived on the mass market yet. However, just how anxious for Glass is the mass market?

Perhaps not very, as a recent Huffington Post article titled “Google Glass Survey: Only 10 Percent of U.S. Smartphone Users Would Buy Google Glass if They Could Afford It,” explains (though the title really says it all). Yet, 10% could still be a fairly decent early adoption rate (especially as the device will likely have a slow roll out) and Glass is a transformative device, it is not simply a new type of cell phone it is a truly different device. Google seems to understand that it may have a bit of a slow build, largely because people will need to get used to seeing the devices everywhere.

Which brings us back to privacy. There is a case to be made that the concerns about Google Glass and privacy will wind up benefiting Google more than it might seem. For one thing it’s free advertising, generating stories in major newspapers like The New York Times and thereby ensuring that the conversation continues to focus on Glass. For another thing such articles almost can’t help but mention the “neat” functionality of the devices even if it attempts to portray this information in a “you have been warned” way. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it allows Google execs to reply to these privacy concerns through channels that do not reek of pro-Google propaganda.

If Google were to respond to privacy concerns with an ad blitz many would see in these ads the cover up, and thus it is much more clever to have Google execs like Steve Lee getting to reply to these charges in a seemingly-neutral New York Times article. Furthermore all of these early concerns that are coming out about Glass are giving Google ample time to say “we are addressing these concerns” before the device truly launches, and thus providing Google with yet another opportunity to say “we have addressed your privacy concerns!”

The letter from the BCC to Google is encouraging, but it is also deeply worrisome for it seeks reassurances from an offending party that has shown – rather consistently – not so much that it can’t be trusted but that it has a very different definition of privacy than that which is held by most people. So, when Steve Lee says “Google followed all its privacy and data collection policies with Glass” the proper response is to feel very uncomfortable as these “privacy and data collection policies” have consistently proved to be rather lackluster.

Glass is a device that is perfect in symbolic value for Google, as the company seeks to sweep up ever more information into its massive hoard (more on “big data” here). Google can only grab so much as a single all seeing eye (more on that here), it knows that it’s much more efficient to have hundreds of thousands of “much seeing eyes.” Especially as it makes it so that Google isn’t really the privacy violator, it is the person wearing Glass. Indeed, part of the brilliance of Glass is that while the benefits still accrue to Google, the one truly violating other people’s privacy is the one wearing the device. Glass obfuscates the situation beautifully, removing the onus from Google and transferring it to the user, instead of simply not making such a device in the first place.

Those with serious concerns about Google and Google Glass should feel cheered to see the letter from the BCC to Google, as it is good to know that there are some with regulatory power who are concerned about the device, but those with serious concerns should bear in mind that such congressional concerns simply give Google the priceless public space in which to restate their commitment to privacy.

And when Google inevitably winds up violating the public trust with Glass? Well, $7 million dollars isn’t that much money to Google.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

9 comments on ““Much Seeing Eyes,” “The All Seeing Eye” and the price tag on privacy

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  3. vincentgr
    May 24, 2013

    I’d rephrase this a bit: “If it is meant to be see through then glass should be transparent.” Did you mean to write “seen through,” or did you mean “see-through?”

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2013 by in Google Glass, Government, Legal, Privacy, Society, Surveillance, Technology, The Commons, The Internet, US Politics and tagged .

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