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 MSN Money Partner Apr 15, 2014 10:27AM

Associated Press Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay wears Google Glass in New York, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. © AP Photo/Seth WenigFortune on MSN MoneyBy Christian Madsbjerg, Fortune


Google (GOOG) opens up its Explorer Program Tuesday, offering the general public an opportunity to purchase Glass for $1,500.


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."


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31Comments
Apr 15, 2014 11:04AM
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This apathy about privacy isn't alone. I see apathy regarding so many different things, that it is disturbing. What's the use, is no way to live. It's a recipe for decay.

Why people would put up with being watched all the time, like animals in the zoo, is beyond me.
Apr 15, 2014 12:39PM
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CEO Mark Zuckerberg reminds us that privacy is no longer a "social norm."

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

These are both very scary statements to me. Why do these two guys get to make the decisions regarding privacy for me? 
Apr 15, 2014 11:56AM
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Enough privacy lost already. This device is going to get people hurt because the American public has had just a belly full of intrusiveness in their lives as it is. Personally if I am in a public place like a restaurant etc. and someone is wearing these in my presence I will ask the management to have them removed or else I walk out will not come back to their establishment. Business's are going to have to take a stand on this issue just like they do on States that have discreet carry laws for weapons. Some allow it and others don't. I have a CCW and if I go to a public establishment that says no. Then I respect their decision and comply. These glass wearers will have to do the same or someone is going to really be in their face.
Apr 15, 2014 12:00PM
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You have to be a major nerd to want to be seen in public with this stupid thing on your face.  Sorry folks, no one really cares what you are doing.
Apr 15, 2014 12:53PM
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Like the government doesn't already track your every move.  ATM cameras, red light cameras, security cameras, drones, other people's cell phone cameras.  With the NSA, they have access to all of that.
Apr 15, 2014 12:13PM
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Yet another possession that distracted Libs will be beaten and robbed over. 
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The tribulation period is now upon us. The Bible says in the end days all will be seen by all and recorded for all to see.



Apr 15, 2014 12:04PM
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Not much different from pervs going around with mirrors on their shoes so they could look up women's skirts. These things need to be banned.
Apr 15, 2014 11:36AM
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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!"

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I just wanna know if they really can xray vision womens clothing.....

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....

Apr 15, 2014 1:18PM
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This device, and its subsequent improvements that will come over time, can and probably will have effects that few can image right now.  Already some workplaces require employees to wear monitoring devices so that they can be tracked all of the time.  With this device, the company can record everything that one is doing, saying, looking at all of the time.  Governments too.  In less "free" societies, this will certainly become a major problem if the government wants to know and control what all of its citizens are doing and where they are all of the time.  They could require all of their citizens to wear them.  All transactions would have to be recorded through the beast of the central computer intelligence.  No one will be able to buy, sell, work find a place to live except that it be recorded through the beast.  After all, the governments are going to want their cut of every single transaction, barter, exchange, whatever.  If the device enables the wearer to interact with the internet and see data displayed on the inside of the glasses, he could use image recognition software upon anyone he encounters, look them up, read about their social status, financial status, etc. and then chose to just walk on by and ignore the person, or stalk them for who they are and what they have.  You might be required to wear them to record your visit the voting booth.  Many will wear them to record every possible scenario that could led to a lawsuit and sue for money.  Insurance companies will be watching to see if you are caught smoking or having your favorite 64 ounce soda.    
Jun 1, 2014 8:49PM
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New styles are out too!
http://www.google.com/glass/start/


Jun 1, 2014 8:16PM
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THIS Google glass is much safe than the glasses in the article!
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shedsimove/google-glass-the-worlds-most-cutting-edge-tumblr

Apr 15, 2014 1:07PM
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Google should get a big black eye over this!
Apr 15, 2014 12:00PM
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