Digital cameras have been around for years, but Google Glass, which features a camera that you wear conspicuously on your face, seems to be generating quite a stir. The problem is, there's little point in focusing on Google Glass, and any attempt to ban or regulate the technology will be both pointless and futile.
There's no doubt that technology such as Google Glass changes the privacy landscape. Having millions of people walking around with cameras attached to their faces will certainly increase the scope for sneaky photos and video. The idea of this sort of technology finding its way into places such as public restrooms, amusement parks, and government buildings seems to be enough to cause a backlash against the technology, kicking off discussions about bans and legislation.
But what exactly would this achieve?
First off, we're surrounded by cameras that aren't under our control. Take, for example, the security cameras. These are everywhere, and we have little control over what happens to the masses of data being collected by them. These cameras are collecting sneaky snaps of us — and our kids — going about our daily business all the time, and they've become so ubiquitous that, on the whole, we don't notice them anymore. Next time you're out and about, have a look around you for the cameras that are watching you. You might be surprised how many there are. Or horrified.
Then there's the issue of all the cameras that we already carry around with us as part of devices such as smartphones or tablets, not to mention stand-alone digital cameras. I have five devices that have built-in cameras within arm's reach at this moment. My iPhone's 8-megapixel camera, while being nowhere near as good as a Canon 5D Mk III, is still a highly capable bit of kit.
People seem to be walking around with gadgets in their hands all the time, texting, Facebooking, and whatever. Many a time, I've seen someone walk into a restroom or some other awkward public place with smartphone or tablet in hand. Sure, it's a bit weird, but that's people for you. These people could — and I want to emphasize the word could — be, to take ZDNet's James Kendrick's colorful turn of phrase, "snapping images of my junk". They're probably not, but how would I know? Heck, for that matter, they could have their phone in a pocket or pouch and have it set to take shots while it's hidden away. I really have no idea, unless I challenge everyone I come across who owns a device capable of recording an image.
Try to come up with effective legislation — and, more importantly, effective enforcement — for that. Other than throwing the book at people who misbehave, I see little else we can do.
Then there's the issue of cameras that have been designed to be covert that are readily available. You can already buy tiny cameras, clocks containing a camera, a keyfob camera, a flashlight featuring a built-in camera, and, of course, sunglasses featuring a hidden camera. These are so cool that James Bond himself would be impressed.
And this is just the stuff that's commercially available. There's much more out there.
If you're worried about Google Glass because of what miscreants, ne'er-do-wells, perverts, and criminals are going to do with the technology, well, I'm sorry to have to break it to you, but these people can already get their hands on similar, if not better, spy kit. They don't have to wait for Google to turn Glass into a commercial product, because there are already boatloads of devices that incorporate covert cameras that are already freely available.
I can, as a parent, understand some of the concerns surrounding Google Glass. The idea of this sort of technology falling into the hands of a pervert is definitely unsettling. However, a knee-jerk response is going to achieve little. The fact of the matter is that the Google Glass genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of legislation, banning, or hand waving is going to change that.
At the end of the day, the majority of people are honest, decent, and trustworthy. Millions of years of evolution and experience has made us good at spotting those who don't deserve this trust, and people doing odd and suspicious things will, as a rule, stand out as being odd and suspicious.
While I believe that having a debate about the privacy implications of such devices is a good thing, basing that debate on hype — with lashings of "won't somebody please think of the children" thrown in for extra effect — is going to be counterproductive and ineffectual.