Saturday, February 23, 2013

Privacy in a Connected World

I posted a promo video the other day for Glass, a product Google is hoping to bring to market later this year. If you don't know what Glass is, I'd strongly encourage you to go look into it (I truly believe that Glass represents the future of computing), but the basic summary is that it is glasses that display information for you in the corner of your eye as you need it. The always excellent Joshua Topolsky of the Verge got the chance to visit Google and test out Glass, and he wrote about his experiences here. The article is fantastic, but what I found most interesting was the concerns Topolsky raised about privacy.

One of the most compelling elements of Glass is that each pair has a built in camera which can be triggered by voice commands or a touchpad on the side of the frames. The camera allows users to take pictures or video of literally exactly what they are seeing in real time, without needing to pull out and position a camera. However, Topolsky noted that it also allows anyone to take pictures surreptitiously at any time, which raises obvious concerns. Google themselves don't seem entirely sure what to do with this issue, as they noted that a part of the product's beta run will be spent trying to determine social norms for the devices.

I'm sure a lot of people will find the concept downright creepy, and I'll admit that it does have some ominous implications. However, I think a lot of that will be overblown. There are cameras everywhere these days, and people are always on film. Concealed cameras have been around since I was a kid, so that's nothing new. Glass, at the very least, can only take pictures of what you're looking at. If people can see it, they can save the image, but is that really any different than life today? It may be less obvious than a cell phone, but it's not hard to take pictures of people at random right now.

Of course the big argument against Glass and cameras like it is that if you do something you regret you may never live it down. I'd argue that this is already the case; just look at all the idiots who were hauled in by the Vancouver Police after posting pictures of themselves destroying property to Facebook after the Stanley Cup riot. There were already cameras and internet connections everywhere, and that was a couple of years ago.

But the best way to avoid being the centre of an incident like that is to simply not do something you'll regret the rest of your life. Especially not in the presence of people you can't trust, but just in general, don't be an idiot. If you never set fire to a police car, there will never be any pictures of you setting fire to a police car. You can argue that they're just drunk young men who still need to grow up, but I'm a young man, I've been drunk, and I've never dreamed of setting fire to a police car. Hell, I was there, in downtown Vancouver during that riot. I was on Georgia street, watching game 7 on the big screens they had set up. I was 23 years old. And after the second period, when the crowd started to get ugly, I left, because I did not want to be caught up in a riot.

I was reminded of this last week when reading about Philadelphia Flyers prospect Nick Cousins, who was involved in a little legal trouble last summer. According to Flyers director of development Ian Laperriere, Cousins has "got a good heart ... Let's be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can't get away with anything now." That "anything" to which Laperriere is referring was reported to be "having sexual intercourse with an unnamed woman ... against her will" along with two of Cousins' team mates. What's absolutely horrifying that is Laperriere suggests that you can't get away with gang rape these days as if that's a bad thing.

Laperriere has since backed way off that statement, claiming that he wasn't referring to sexual assault but just young men being stupid in general, and in fairness to Laperriere, English is his second language and there is a good chance that his intended meaning was lost in translation.. There's still reason to believe that there are significant problems in minor hockey in this country when it comes to treating women, and that there are significant problems in the entire country when it comes to dealing with sexual assault, but that's a topic for a whole other post, probably better left to someone with more knowledge and credibility in the subject than myself. The reason I bring this up isn't to torch Cousins, Laperriere, or minor league hockey. Rather, to point out that Laperriere is right, you can't get away with anything these days, and that's a good thing.

With cameras everywhere and so many people posting pictures, videos, and quotes to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google Plus, and more, it's much harder to get away with sexual assault than it once was, and that is a great thing. It's much harder to get away with torching a police car than it once was, and that's a great thing. It's much harder to get away with abducting a child than it once was, and that's a great thing. I get why people want their privacy, honestly. There have been times where I would have preferred that certain people not know where I was or what I was doing, not because of any ethical issues, but just because there are some things you want to keep to yourself.

However, if I have to give up all my privacy so that one less person is sexually assaulted, or one less child is abducted, then I don't see how I could possibly disagree. Obviously this isn't such a black and white issue; we don't all have to take sides between privacy and rape, there's probably a nice balance somewhere. But I think that as we move more and more into a deeply connected world -- and it's happening whether we like it or not -- we need to keep in mind that, as we might fight to retain some privacy, there are good things that can come from giving up some privacy too.

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