Dario Panada compares Google Glasses to Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ and reveals some troubling ramifications.
We live in a world where what we have for breakfast is dictated by how well we can match it to a trending hash tag on Twitter. Our phones have been the magic wands that allowed us to record our every breath, and store it on the offshore servers of some unidentified tech company. Reading the small print, it should have been quite clear that the moment a single post, tweet or image left our device that no longer belonged to us and we could claim no further right over it. Luckily for us, however, at some point the moment came when the phone went back inside our pocket and, at least for the time being, we were no longer broadcasting our inner thoughts and sentiments to the world. Luckily for us, social conventions prevented us from keeping our phone in our hands 24/7 and, although to a ridiculously small extent, we could still retain a certain degree of privacy. No merit to us for that, though, let this be clear.
Luckily for us, social conventions prevented us from keeping our phone in our hands 24/7.
Things, however, could be about to change very quickly. In 1984, George Orwell dreaded the day when every inch of inhabited land was electronically monitored. In his novel, cameras would be ever-present as Big Brother’s watchful eyes surveyed the entire population. Where Orwell fell short, and Google engineers filled in for him, is that static cameras are so… 1980s. In fact, in today’s world, who would expect people to remain confined to their neighbourhood, city or country? We live in a fast-moving environment; people are always on the move, and places which yesterday were in and attracted loads of people could be completely out and empty tomorrow. If it is to be effective, surveillance needs to evolve. Rather than keeping cameras fixed, why not have them follow people? In fact, why not have people wear cameras altogether? And with them, microphones too, and satellite trackers, and heartbeat monitors, and let’s link these to all their social media, e-mail and online storage accounts. To this, let’s add some clever algorithms for data mining, as well as big data administration and… Voilà! Les jeux sont faits! Whoever has access to such data would instantly be able to retrieve incredibly large amounts of information on both yourself and your surrounding environment! In fact, the more people were present in one area at any given time, the more information would be available!
Static cameras are so… 1980s.
As science fiction as this may sound, it isn’t. A few months ago, Google captivated the tech scene presenting the “Google Glasses”. For those unfamiliar, this is an example of “wearable technology”. True, Samsung had already tried a breakthrough with their watch-like device “Samsung Gear”, but this had not sprouted much tangible enthusiasm among the general public. The core question remained; what exactly could one do on a 2” screen? Good luck reading e-mails there! Google Glasses, on the other hand, delivered the promise of augmented reality that we had been dreaming of since the first Spy Kids movie. Demo videos and pieces of concept arts were released which showed people taking pictures on the fly just by saying “snap”, looking at a sign in a foreign language and immediately seeing it translate into their own, or following a crumb-tail path as navigating a foreign city. In short, a useful mix of a handless camera, Google Maps and the Babel fish. The possibilities are endless, and the most disparate uses and features have been proposed.
However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of these glasses is that, if enough people wear them, suddenly everybody in the surrounding area joins the “social network”. It doesn’t matter whether you are signed up to Facebook and already contributing to the world’s largest database of faces, or whether you have a last-gen iPhone and Apple at your fingerprints. It is enough for somebody wearing the Glasses to look at you and immediately they are feeding information about yourself to, well, somebody!
It is enough for somebody wearing the Glasses to look at you and immediately they are feeding information about yourself to, well, somebody!
Medusa’s stare. Just by being looked at, suddenly your location is recorded. Suddenly somebody else knows you were in a certain restaurant, or you are wearing a certain brand of clothes, or that you have a pet or are reading a certain book. As with all good learning algorithms, the more training data they are provided with, and the better they become. The more Medusa looks at you, the easier it becomes for the system to identify you. Every image recorded by a pair of Glasses is transmitted to some remote location and then analysed. Information is extrapolated, connections are made and inferences are taken. If a world existed in which a sufficiently high number of people wore these glasses, you would be under Big Brother’s watchful eye every time somebody saw you.
Is it perhaps the case that existing privacy laws are unfit to tackle this new, emerging technology? Is it possible that, if the spread of Google Glasses and similar concepts occurred before appropriate legislation was enacted, we may all be left naked under Big Google’s stare? In today’s world, where recent events have proven that private data isn’t necessarily private, this is something that should be carefully considered, and appropriate action is recommended.
Is it perhaps the case that existing privacy laws are unfit to tackle this new, emerging technology?
Dario Panada is a computer scientist with a keen interest in artificial intelligence and biology inspired algorithms. In his spare time he enjoys travelling, reading and playing chess. He tweets @DarioPanada.
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