Lifelogging cameras may be a technology that we need to ban

Lifelogging cameras offer a way of having greater recall over your personal life experiences, but what they do to the privacy of others may be a step too far...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
A little device that's good for violating privacy in a big way.

I've wanted a lifelogging camera for years.

Now I've had the opportunity to try one, I'm not convinced they are a good idea at all. In fact, I think we may need to ban them.

The idea of a lifelogging camera is that it's a device you carry on your person that takes a photo automatically every 30 seconds or so. Those photos then act as a record of what you were doing throughout the day.

For me, the appeal was that although I have a good memory for facts and figures, I'm terrible at remembering life's experiences. Being able to peruse a bunch of photos from some random day "n" years ago seriously appeals.

Plus, I'm an advocate of the idea of the "personal digital archive". Given that so much of our lives is now conducted digitally, and given that those digital experiences can be recorded verbatim, why not collect everything include a thousand-odd photos per day of random scenes from your life?


The company behind the Autographer lifelogging camera was nice enough to lend me a review unit.

Reviewing a product in a publication is sometimes a little tricky. There is the old maxim of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

In this case, I find that although the product itself is perfectly good at what it does, what it demands of the user is downright awful. I should also say that what I'm about to say isn't unique to the Autographer -- any lifelogging camera is going to reveal the same problem.

The underlying problem of lifelogging cameras is that they essentially demand that you take photos of complete strangers. I would wager that walking up to a complete stranger and deliberately taking a photo of them would make virtually everyone reading this uncomfortable -- yet, that is exactly what wearing a lifelogging camera means.

The Autographer can be worn on a lanyard, or can be worn clipped onto clothes. Other lifelogging cameras work in the same way. Imagine the camera around your chest pointing outwards. Now imagine going into a shop and buying some groceries. As you do this, you're taking photos of other shoppers, and of the people working in the shop.

Is that really something you want to do? You don't know those people. Although they're in public they expect some privacy. All they're doing is getting on with their lives.

So how about this: you go to work. Is it appropriate to take photos of your colleagues? Probably not. What about visitors to the office? What about visitors whose presence at your office would cause embarrassment to some party? How about accidentally taking photos of documents that are laying around? What about if your job is customer facing? In no way can using a lifelogging camera at work be considered appropriate.

Finally then, let's think about being at home. Is your spouse going to want you taking a photo of them as they get out of the shower? Almost certainly not.

When I was wearing the Autographer, I found myself acutely aware that I was wearing it. I was forever turning it around to face me, "muting" the camera. I kept crossing the street to avoid strangers. I felt I had to take it off when at work, or at home, or when out with friends. I found virtually no instances where the device offered any value.

Social rules

When I was discussing the device with my ZDNet colleagues, one of them remarked that "of course [I] would feel uncomfortable -- it's unnatural".

"It's unnatural" is how we can describe every technology that humankind has ever invented. That's what technology is.

Every technology needs some sort of social adaptation in order for it to become accepted. Here's an example: The other day I was watching the last episode of Seinfeld. In May this episode will be sixteen years old. In it, there is a scene where Elaine needs to make a phonecall to a friend whose father is ill in hospital. She chooses to make the call using her cellphone whilst walking down the road. Jerry admonishes her for doing so -- his argument being that the call is too important for a "walk and talk", and that she should wait and use a landline.

Sixteen years on it seems ridiculous that such an admonishment would happen because we've all agreed as a society that the convenience of making phone calls wherever suits is a good thing.

The question is whether sixteen years from now lifelogging cameras would seem less problematic. I sincerely hope not. Before I say this next part, firstly I should say that I'm not really qualified to apply such a label to the technology, and secondly I am personally very bullish about the positive effects technology can have on society as a whole.

Lifelogging cameras have to be a symptom of sociopathy. I say that because it is so fundamentally wrong to willingly invade privacy of others that it has to be so. For that reason, these things need to be banned.


This was supposed to be a product review of the Autographer camera, but for me the whole concept of the device turned out to be so appalling that was really what I had to talk about.

I went into this with a very positive attitude towards lifelogging cameras, and now I've emerged from it hoping that it will never be a technology that comes to pass.

By extension, I'm now worried about wearable technologies that have cameras. A year ago, I wrote about how Google Glass was a lifelogging technology. I've also been reasonably positive that Google Glass would be more of a toehold in normal, non-technologist society than most people think.

I'm now left thinking that Glass and its emulators will go nowhere as both sides -- those wearing them as those being looked at through them -- sense a distaste for the technology.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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