Google Glass is just the beginning: Invisible cameras and the privacy headaches of tomorrow

Google Glass is just the beginning: Invisible cameras and the privacy headaches of tomorrow

Summary: It's time to start quantifying the wearable computing privacy problem: devices that make us fitter and smarter may also eat away at privacy unless we act now.

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Wearable computing devices are heading for the mainstream but unless issues around privacy are tackled now, those problems are only going to get bigger as the devices themselves get smaller and less noticeable.

Wearable tech, from activity trackers through to Google Glass and the much-rumoured Apple iWatch, is part of a new category of devices that allows users to measure and record their own behaviour and the world around them.

But just as wearable computing comes in a number of form factors, so too do the potential privacy issues it creates — some a way off, some more immediate.

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

Before the iWatch: A history of smartwatches, in pictures

As a result, policy makers to be discussing the implications of wearable technology now, while it's still at an early enough stage of adoption, according to Chris Brauer, director of the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies at Goldsmiths University, who has conducted a study of wearable computing.

"We are often reactive in this process," he said. However, as the next generation of wearable devices become less obtrusive, the privacy problems could get worse, not better.

"The Google Glass conversation is about people with the glasses on and the camera is highly visible, but as these devices get embedded into textiles and have much smaller cameras and much less visible applications of the technology, it's going to create a whole raft of emergent issues.

"That's going to come swiftly in the next 18 months and introduce a different conversation which is less about the issues right now regarding privacy and more about what are we going to do about this as it embeds into all aspects of our everyday lives."

His research shows a certain amount of ambivalence towards such devices: while two-thirds of users of such devices said their wearable tech had made them fitter, a similar percentage of the general public thought such devices should be regulated in some way — and one in five of those queried thought they should be banned.

Bauer said early adopters of activity tracking devices believed they were "investing in themselves" when using such tech, and saw a benefit in sharing the information it gathered. "They use these devices to track and develop data for their quantified self, and they are exchanging that data for improvements in their life," Bauer said. "If they get benefits in return from exposing personal data, then they would be willing to do it."

Indeed, according to Bauer's research, sponsored by cloud computing company Rackspace, one in three respondents would be willing to use a wearable health and fitness monitor that shares personal data with the NHS or a healthcare provider.

But Bauer said there was a potentially "troubling" downside to such a move: if, for example, insurers began to expect access to such data, then those unwilling to live their lives "healthily" could see their insurance premiums increased. Similarly, "unhealthy" people might choose not to use the tech at all, rather than risk being penalised by healthcare institutions for doing so. "If it's not good, releasing that individual data will put you at significant risk and that will lead to two-tier usage patterns [of the technology]", he said.

Whereas activity trackers may lead to concerns about how our own data could be used, something like Google Glass raises concerns about the privacy of others.

In some respects, Google Glass has become a lightning rod for these concerns, partly because it's the most high profile device and also because it records information about the world around the wearer, rather than just about the wearer themselves. For example, earlier this week Google confirmed that it would not currently approve any facial recognition apps for Google Glass, and said it would only do so in future if it had "strong privacy protections in place".

Over the next couple of years, wearable devices are likely to become more integrated with each other too. Bauer said one likely next step was applications to combine all the different types of data gathered by individual devices — your Glass data could be mashed up with the information gathered by your FitBit, for example.

"While something might track concentration and another thing sleep patterns and another your mood, the triangulation of those things will provide a much richer fit and more utility than those things in isolation."

With such integration on the horizon, wearable tech is opening up even more ways for the data it collects about individuals to be used — or misused.

Topics: Mobility, Emerging Tech

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15 comments
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  • If I was to make photos and movies without being noticed

    I wouldn't opt for Google glasses. There are much better things now, cheaper, widely available, probably with better image quality and a lot more discrete.
    AleMartin
    • Google Glass as lightning rod

      Agreed - Google Glass has provoked a lot of debate because it's the most visible technology; when wearable tech becomes harder to spot the problems are actually worse.
      Steve Ranger
  • Unhealthy lifestyle is now banned from consideration by insurers

    "But Bauer said there is a potentially "troubling" downside of such a move: if, for example, insurers began to expect access to such data, then those unwilling to live their lives 'healthily' could see their insurance premiums increased. Similarly, 'unhealthy' people may choose not to use the tech at all, rather than risk being penalised by healthcare institutions for doing so. "If it's not good, releasing that individual data will put you at significant risk and that will lead to two-tier usage patterns" of the technology, he said."

    Clearly Mr. Bauer has paid no attention to the really perverse part of BHOCARE. It specifically bans the insurance companies from chargeing drinkers, dopers, unsafe/unprotected sexers, junkfood junkys, couch potatos and EVERY pother known unhealty activity except tobacco use (but it gives the States the power to ban higher premiums for tobacco use) from charging higher premiums.

    It isn't the unhealthy that are getting punished.. IT IS THE HEALTHY that are getting punished!! It is the people that deliberately live healthy so they can work and pay taxes that are getting punished. In fact, the unhealthy, because they either won't work as much or will end up in lower paying jobs are going to get rewarded with lower insurance and lower health care costs.
    So the technology that documents their unhealthy activity will help them prove that they need more tax subsidies and lower insurance premiums and lower co-pays.
    CutRightSharpening
    • freedom

      Seems like the same complaint I have about driving. It's the good drivers that get punished, not necessarily by insurance rates but with every unnecessary delay, close call, avoidable accident.
      People who can drive like their vehicle is their right arm have to constantly put up with inept drivers who have every right to be on the road by law but really have no business driving. It's really too much for them. But this is a free country where everybody gets to do everything and unfortunately that leads to things having to be dumbed down and extreme safety measures put in place. That's the way it is in a free country. In other words, you may be gifted with strong self-motivation, will power and discipline for whatever reason, but not everybody has that kind of self-control. A lot of people are damaged deep down inside, and some just don't understand and may never understand.
      hadoz
    • Genetic test results are now banned from consideration by insurers

      Clearly Mr. Bauers has paid no attention to the really perverse part of BHOCARE. It specifically bans the insurance companies from charging people genetically more likely to develop expensive diseases higher premiums.

      It isn't the genetically impoverished that are getting punished.. IT IS THE GENETICALLY GIFTED that are getting punished!! It is the people that deliberately don't have to compensate from their familial genetics and live on less palatable diets (e.g.. cholesterol diets to avoid heart disease for those with histories of hypercholesterolemia) that are getting punished. In fact, the the genetically impoverished, because they either won't work as much or will end up in lower paying jobs are going to get rewarded with lower insurance and lower health care costs.
      So the technology that documents their unhealthy genetics will help them prove that they need more tax subsidies and lower insurance premiums and lower co-pays.
      zdnet@...
    • And since our tax laws encourage sexers to reproduce, BHOCARE makes...

      ... things even worse by subsidizing pre-natal care which will add an even greater burden to our currently elegant well-functioning healthcare system.
      The promise of these new technologies, is that we can monitor the actions and behaviors of people from birth to death, measuring their input and outputs, making sure that none are subsidized, and are rewarded exactly at for their marginal productivity. We are finally on the verge of a truly meritocratic society. Let's not let BHO and his redistributionist ideologues sabotage that glorious future!
      zdnet@...
      • Good parody!

        Of course, HADOZ and his/her ilk will not RECOGNIZE it as a parody, they are so wedded to their pseudo-Darwinian ideology of society. I call it PSEUDO because Darwinian theory does not promote just the survival of the fittest INDIVIDUAL, but the survival of the fittest SPECIES. Alligators were endangered until humans passed laws to protect the ones that remained; being reptiles, they are superbly fit for their environment as INDIVIDUALS, but could not compete with Homo sapiens and our SPECIES fitness resulting from our union into societies. And our species will NOT survive if we revert to the reptile model of individual-to-individual competition; we NEED the social contract in order for all of us to live and perform at our best. Even the most successful individuals were helped by the presence of a society: top athletes, unless they are fighters who break the law to take what they want, have a skill that OTHERS reward by buying tickets, then later by buying cereal, shoes, real estate or insurance; top business people succeed because OTHERS want to buy their products (AND have the money to do so); even scam artists succeed for a while because OTHERS give them money. The Ayn Randians forget this and claim, like Nietzsche, to be ubermenschen in a world of subhumans.
        jallan32
  • What Support Do Democratic Governments Get on Mobile Sensors

    In the US, MIT and Harvard spawned a consulting industry of University Institutes to help government figure out Cold War technology. No such support is evident now (last seen when Lugar/Nunn) solved the Russian nuclear weapon security problem for them. Instead we get hand wringing and word smithing instead of understanding. Has anyone noticed that numerous sensors are combined on the sensor platform called iPhones.
    Glass just puts the sensor platform up where nature intended: near eyes, ears an nostrils.
    jnffarrell
  • peruse

    Any spytech catalog or website and you will find that invisible cams are nothing new. All the laws in the world wont change the fact that miniature cams are cheap and readily available with a broad of legitimate uses
    krossbow
  • Some of this is just as extension of normal human abilities

    Anyone just walking around without any cameras is viewing information through their eyes. If their brain is functioning well, they can remember what they have seen, and if artistic enough, draw it all out (or paint it). Google glass is just the digital equivalent. Sure that makes the data more prevalent and readily available than in someone's head, but it is still the same data. I can think of how great it would be for me to be able to actually remember people's names with the help of face recognition software in Google Glass with their name popping up. At the same time, I am nervous about everyone else having the same capabilities.
    grayknight
    • Identifying the wrong people

      Imagine how terrible it would be for law-abiding and obviously naive persons to identify terrorists, criminals, or lost/kidnapped children during everyday life.
      TWO_OF_US
      • Yeah, I can see that as a problem.

        Don't use HUD device with facial recognition if you don't have a good poker face.

        "Oh, you're that guy on the most wanted list. Help! Hel..." person then gets murdered to silence the yelling.

        Technology is a tool. The same hammer can build a house, demolish a house, smash your thumb, or kill someone. All of these can also be done without a hammer. Don't blame the tool.
        mlashinsky@...
  • Seduction of information and privacy.

    Imagine living in a world of invisible and full connected information access... You see someone in a room, your tech does it's facial recognition and gives you their name. From there you "blink" connect to various providers to gather additional information such as, employer, income, spending habits, credit history, published articles/posts, list of friends, sexual orientation, marital status, model of vehicle, home address, work hours, recent movie rentals, book titles, clothing sizes, criminal background check, political affiliations, medical information, family medical history, genetic predispositions, scholastic records, travel history, nick names, net worth, gambling losses, accident reports, names of any children, photos of all family members and close friends, quick view of recent photos of this person, (both with an w/o clothes) and current calendar activities for today. All of this information is then sorted, prioritized, and cross matched to customized selection preferences for the current objectives. (entertainment, financial, legal, physical, disruptive, or even criminal) Then you casually walk up and introduce yourself. "Hi I'm Bob. Would you like to have coffee sometime ?" Those not possessing this tech are of a lower cast, and are commonly referred to as "vics" Short for victims.... Those with the tech are successful within this information society. Orwell was an optimist. Humanity's darkness is unbounded, when technology exceeds morality, decency, and ethics. Some will tout the wonders of increased safety, and security, as their rational for this societal tech creep, and destruction of privacy. Until these advocates become one of the "vics". At which time, they will comprehend the event horizon they have crossed.
    Iozone
    • You are blaming the technology. Blame the people.

      There have been cast systems for all of humanity. There have been thieves, con artists, and rulers, (often one and the same,) for all of humanity. There have been "haves" and Have-nots" for all of humanity. Humanity has had a dark side for all of humanity's existence.

      There is essentially no difference between your "vic" and any other "have-not" throughout human history. It isn't the technology that is a problem, it is people.
      mlashinsky@...
  • Submit

    With the NSA's all seeing eye, PRISM combined with Google Glass's facial recognition, WiFi and Geo-location capabilities, our generation will see the end of privacy. It will be just a thing we used to have that we tell our grandchildren about. We are just lying down and taking it. Worse yet, some welcome it, They usher in the death of privacy. Corporations now have more rights and influence than actual flesh and blood people. It seems the few with the millions make the rules that everyone else is subject to. They decide our future and we many peons blindly accept it. Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others like them used to be ordinary like us. But now they are better than us because they managed to steal the ideas of other people and step on their partners while they clawed their way to the top of the pile. They belong to the billionaires club now and they'll have nothing to do with ordinary people anymore except to take our money. Remember these names. They are the kings of the 21st century and they, not you, decide right from wrong. They, not you, decide your future, and you can't do anything to stop it.
    whoeverelse