Should Google know your deep, dark secrets?
With Google Glass on sale to the general public today, it's time to have a serious and overdue discussion about technology and privacy.
By Christian Madsbjerg, Fortune
Although spots are limited, the expansion of the Glass club has created tremendous excitement across tech blogs and Silicon Valley -- finally, the tools are readily available to record our complete existence, every moment of our lives on Earth, every face we encounter.
And what about the people on the other side of the camera? As they have no legal or political mechanism for opting out of Glass, they can either jump on the bandwagon or stay home: Our entire lives are now fair game for recording and sharing.
Lest we fret too much about the prospect of full disclosure, Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg reminds us that privacy is no longer a "social norm." It's so last century, right?
Other countries in Europe and Asia have recently had robust public debates about the limits of privacy, and, as a result, legislation has taken measures to address the concern, even mandating shutter-click sounds and disabling facial recognition software. Yet here in the United States, even after the NSA data-collection scandals, there have not been enough extensive ethical conversations about technology and privacy in the national media.
When we study U.S. consumers' perceptions around technology, we hear the same thing over and over again: "But who would find my photos interesting?" Most people we've spoken with over the years express a sense of apathy regarding privacy and security concerns. While many of them admit that they don't like being photographed or recorded without consent, they simply don't know what to do about it -- the rhetoric of innovation and progress that accompanies tech's invasion into our private lives makes the whole thing feel like a fait accompli.
According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, we need not be concerned if our entire lives are recorded and made visible to others, because: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
By taking a moral high ground, he reduces privacy to a protection mechanism for illegal or illicit activities. Reality, of course, is far more complex than Schmidt's vision of a flat monoculture of morals. Each of us occupies a variety of social worlds with different moral codes: What might be okay in one circle isn't necessarily okay in another.
Ironically, Google+, with its overlapping social circles, is entirely structured around this principle -- we all do things that we don't want our grandmothers, significant others, friends or bosses to see. But Glass changes all that because we no longer have control over how our lives are recorded and shared online.
And if Schmidt was being serious (rather than merely provocative), it's hard to square his perspective with the explosion of digital communication channels that explicitly deliver highly private, even anonymous, digital interactions. In our recent projects for global technology companies, we've seen firsthand how younger users especially are beginning to treat highly public platforms like Facebook as mere "online image maintenance," suitable for only the most banal and generic information.
They've turned instead to apps like Snapchat, Whisper and Between to share more high-value and "real" content -- the inside jokes, the unscripted updates, the small gestures of "I'm thinking of you now." Much of the actual content of these digital interactions is unsuitable for public consumption, part of what makes it so valuable to users. But it's often this type of content, the slightly transgressive, experimental, unproven or strange, that's been the basis of America's vibrant culture. You could ask the question: Is a person who has nothing to hide worth knowing?
A key driver of our cultural output is our robust civil society -- the private sphere of human interactions outside of business or government that creates and nurtures new ideas. We don't need to go back far in history -- the Stasi, McCarthyism, the Salem witch trials, etc. -- to observe the disastrous cultural effects wrought by the breakdown of civil society. In all of these cases, the usurping of privacy was a key tool of the regime in control; the perception of being constantly watched created a normalizing effect, where citizens slowly internalized the surveillance and modified their behaviors to be less and less idiosyncratic.
Maybe you're still thinking, but yes, as long as we're not doing anything illegal, overturning the state, say, what harm is there in a little exposure? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, after all.
Consider another example: It is said that 40 to 76 percent of all marriages will be hit with infidelity at some point. Infidelities are a closely guarded but a fairly common secret. Now imagine if all instances of infidelity and flirting became public data. Imagine if Google made this data available to you, your friends and the government, together with all the accompanying metadata of how you were feeling at the time and how good the motel was on a 1 to 5 scale. Does that information really want to be free?
Instead of letting the tech industry lock you into a rhetorical stronghold -- your privacy in the name of their progress -- stop for a moment. It's time to really think -- not just about what's possible, but about what's preferable. What do we really want as a society?
Christian Madsbjerg is a senior partner at ReD Associates, a strategy and innovation consulting firm based in the human sciences. He is author of "The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems."
More from Fortune
- 8 CEOs who took a pay cut in 2013
- How companies are using wearables in the workplace
- How Zuck met Oculus: The story behind Facebook's big bet on virtual reality
I suspect Mr. Schmidt and his fellow travelers will begin to be trotted to 'woodsheds,' in fairly short, for 'lectures' on why their willful obtuseness may be dangerous to one's health. He may wish to consider packaging his voyeur glasses with a pair of safety goggles. "Goggles for Google Glass - don't leave home without 'em!"
Seriously... Who wants to pay 1500 bucks to look like a dork that cant leave their computer at home??
And how much will street muggings increase when these people walk around with a high value item clearly in view??
I see it as a fad that will pass soon and maybe become somewhat common down the road if prices drop.
As far as the privacy, being in public has always meant "no privacy"...
My suggestion is moon every person you see wearing these and eventually they will get the hint....
Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.
Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.
Start investing in technology companies with help from financial writers and experts who know the industry best. Learn what to look for in a technology company to make the right investment decisions.
Forget Facebook: DataCoup allows users to sell their private data directly to businesses. But will consumers feel comfortable taking them up on the offer?
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
MUST-SEE ON MSN
- Video: Easy DIY smoked meats at home
A charcuterie master shares his process for cold-smoking meat at home.
- Jetpacks about to go mainstream
- Weird things covered by home insurance
- Bing: 70 percent of adults report 'digital eye strain'