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Privacy war looms over wearable computers

Nick Bilton (via NYT/ SMH) | May 29, 2013
Protectors of privacy and propriety are beginning to speak out.

Google Glass: Privacy debate heating up.
Google Glass: Privacy debate heating up. Photo: Google

Perhaps the best way to predict how society will react to so-called wearable computing devices is to read the Dr Seuss children's story 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 violently confront anyone wearing one of these devices.

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. Then, 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?

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."

 

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