Google Glass, Privacy and Willful Misunderstanding

I’ve seen links to this Verge article going around, including one heavily quoted section of the piece:

At one point during my time with Glass, we all went out to navigate to a nearby Starbucks — the camera crew I’d brought with me came along. As soon as we got inside however, the employees at Starbucks asked us to stop filming. Sure, no problem. But I kept the Glass’ video recorder going, all the way through my order and getting my coffee. Yes, you can see a light in the prism when the device is recording, but I got the impression that most people had no idea what they were looking at. The cashier seemed to be on the verge of asking me what I was wearing on my face, but the question never came. He certainly never asked me to stop filming.

It bothered me that the cashier was filmed without his knowledge or consent, first and foremost — a privacy issue that others have already spoken to quite well. But there was something else itching at me about that quote. I set it aside for awhie, but stumbled across it again in my feed reader*this morning, and it clicked into place.

Again, from the article, but cutting out the middle of the paragraph:

[…]As soon as we got inside however, the employees at Starbucks asked us to stop filming.[…] But I kept the Glass’ video recorder going, all the way through my order and getting my coffee.[…] He certainly never asked me to stop filming.

Do you see it?

The Starbucks employees asked them to stop filming. Full stop.

Joshua Topolsky, the article’s author and wearer of the Google Glass device, kept filming.

He seems to be justifying his continued recording, even though the cashier was clearly wary, because he wasn’t specifically asked to stop using his device.

The point is, the cashier shouldn’t have had to ask him to stop using Google Glass, because other employees at the Starbucks asked the whole crew to stop filming.

That request doesn’t mean “only the cameras we can see need to be shut off.” It means every camera, including the little widget attached to your glasses that doesn’t look like one. When the crew shut off their cameras, the Starbucks employees believed they were no longer being filmed. Sneakily keeping the Glass device recording because it wasn’t specifically named in the request was not okay.

Benefit of the doubt here, I’m guessing Topolsky did that partly to point out how easy it would be to record someone via Google Glass without their knowledge or permission. I don’t believe he was intentionally being a jerk. However, the end of that paragraph, where he says he was never asked to stop filming less than 75 words after he states the crew as a whole was “asked us to stop filming” (bolding mine), bothers me.

He was certainly part of the “us” at the start of the section. “Us” implies that the first-person speaker counts himself as part of the whole group. By the end of the paragraph, he switches to “never asked me to stop filming.” He’s split the crew into “the guys with cameras” and “me, the guy with Google Glass” which he seems to think exempts him from the employees’ request.

It doesn’t work that way.

I don’t think Topolsky would have, after the cameras were shut off, whipped out a smartphone and started recording on the presumption that “they didn’t ask me not to record on my iPhone.” So why would he consider Google Glass any different?

Say a teacher tells her test-taking students, “Don’t copy off the person sitting next to you.” A student who copies from the person sitting in front of them knows full goddamned well she isn’t supposed to copy from anyone.

If she gets caught, do you really think the teacher’s going to buy the excuse of “Well, you didn’t say we couldn’t copy from the person in front of us”?

No. That kid’s going to fail the test, and rightfully so.

That sort of willful misunderstanding of the employees’ legitimate request is something I worry about with the advent of Glass. Wiggling around a person’s right to privacy because they didn’t ask exactly the right question in exactly the right way?

Come on. We need to be better than that.


*The soon-to-be-defunct Google Reader. I get the irony

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2 Responses to Google Glass, Privacy and Willful Misunderstanding

  1. Nrgh. That’s a pathetic quibble on Topolsky’s part and you’re completely right to call him out on it. Google Glass already bothers me knowing how many more people are going to start colliding on sidewalks (there are already new medical insurance codes for people who get injured walking into things while distracted on cellphones). Now I’m extra-skeeved at the idea that people could be recording things and nobody would know. At least with a standard camera, you can see that the red light is on during recording. I’m guessing Glass has no similar indicator?

  2. falconesse says:

    He mentions that there’s a light in the prism you can see in the lens when Glass is recording, but went on to state most people don’t really know that that’s what the light means yet. Maybe once Glass is more prevalent, people will pick up on that, but I don’t know how close you need to be to see that the light is on.

    If the person’s right up in your face, maybe you can see it, but I’d imagine that if someone were recording you from across the room, not only would you not be able to notice the light within the prism, but if they were wearing regular glasses and not the Google Glass headset by itself, you might not even know they had the device on in the first place.

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