Google Glass is the best thing that ever happened to internet privacy – and here's why

Summary:We've just about worked out when it's appropriate to use a mobile phone, but wearable computing will ask a whole set of new questions and we need answers, fast.

Let's just agree this upfront: privacy is not cool, and it's not sexy. It's the sort of abstract concept debated by earnest activists, policy wonks and dusty professors in dry seminars, with bad biscuits.

That's unfortunate, because working out how our personal information should be protected is emerging as a vital issue in an age when data about us has become a common standard.

Many of us are accustomed to exchanging information about ourselves in return for access to online services, whether that's sharing photos on Facebook or typing a search term into Google.

But wearable computing devices will blur the line between the online world and real life , and make it easier than ever to record and share information about ourselves and others, we urgently need a new set of rules around privacy.

As such, Google Glass is such good news because inadvertently it has dragged the digital privacy debate out of the shadows and forced it blinking into the daylight.

That's because Google Glass is cool, and it is sexy (well, occasionally). It has brought into focus all the unarticulated anxieties around privacy that new technologies are creating.

That's useful because as wearable tech becomes smaller and more common we'll start to forget about it. Google Glass is our reminder to have the debate about privacy before these devices merge ubiquitously into everyday life. 

Wearable computing creates two privacy issues.

Firstly there's the issue of what is done with the information that we generate about ourselves. For example while using an activity tracker to see how far you've run might be a good way to encourage you to hit a particular fitness goal, would you at some future date really want to have to share that information with your doctor or your insurer, even if it could cut your insurance premium?

And what if we don't want to live our lives in accordance with what the algorithm thinks is health — does that mean you should be penalised with higher premiums?

Secondly, devices such as Google Glass are more about identifying and recording the world around us, which poses another set of questions.

The commercial potential of such devices are easy to see — imagine how useful advertisers would find knowing where you look in store, and for how long.

What if they could target you depending on what products you looked at in a supermarket, and chase you with ads for days afterwards until you went back and bought something?

All of this happens online already, of course, as cookies track us from webpage to webpage and site to site and the data that we shed as we roam is collected, collated, analysed and resold to target us better with advertising.

But because it happens online we are somehow more comfortable with it. Wearable technology could bring those some of that online behaviour tracking into real life — if we let it.

Google characterises the early users of Glass as an Explorer Programme and it's just that – exploring where the boundaries are and what we feel comfortable with.

For example, Google recently decided not to allow facial recognition apps for Glass, because of the privacy implications. It's a good example of how the technology is sprinting while our rules about how it should be used aren't even crawling. 

We've already worked out, over time, what's appropriate for other new technologies.

We now mostly know when it's not appropriate to use a smartphone — in the cinema for example. We need to get ready for the wearable computing wave and decide the etiquette for it, too.

Topics: Mobility

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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