Google Glass: Welcome to the end of privacy

CATEGORY: PrivacyIf you haven’t yet seen Mark Hurst’s piece on Google Glass over at Creative Good, you need to. You really, really need to. A lot of times cool new gadget and service roll-outs mainly just affect the manufacturers and the people with the cash to buy them. Sure, there can be collateral damage – World of Warcraft widows, for instance – but usually the downside isn’t as direct as it is with this latest idea from the Don’t Be Evil crowd. A snip from Hurst’s analysis:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Now pretend you don’t know a single person who wears Google Glass… and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public – any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway – you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you – and all 49 other passengers – could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.

Ummmkay, that’s a little creepy. But we’ll adjust, right? Not so fast.

Now, I know the response: “I’m recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn’t bother me, what’s the difference?” Hear me out – I’m not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it’s a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.

First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.

Wait – so now it’s not only taking video of me, it’s linking that video to my name and identity? Yes. Try not to think, for a moment, about all the data that exists on you already – you know, consumer profiles and the like. You don’t surf porn, do you?

Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google’s search index.

Nervous yet? Keep reading.

Let’s return to the bus ride. It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.

I’m still not done.

The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

So, say in five years you’re applying for a job with, I don’t know, Google. You might not remember calling Sergey Brin a fascist motherfucker on May 3, 2013, while having coffee with your best friend and discussing this article. But Google’s HR group remembers. They have the audio (and maybe the video, too). But, but – HR groups would never use that, right? No, of course not. Just like they never ask for Facebook passwords.

Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

Seattle’s 5 Point Cafe has proudly become the first establishment to ban Google Glass. I’m guessing they won’t be the last. I’m also thinking of starting a pool: on what date will we hear about the first assault against a GG wearer by somebody who doesn’t want his/her privacy invaded?

Once again, corporate America is innovating new and improved ways of invading your privacy. Orwell saw the future, only he thought governments would be the culprits. And they certainly will be – expect them to be lining up to purchase Google’s data. And expect Google to find an excuse to sell it to them.

What we need now are equally gifted tech entrepreneurs dedicated to short-circuiting Google and to assuring greater privacy for the citizenry. I actually have a couple of ideas. If you’re a venture capitalist who’s concerned about our civil liberties, drop me a line….

43 replies »

  1. All of this presupposes a few things. The use of facial recognition software and voice-to-text translation stored in massive facilities and tied together in a database would be expensive, and that means that there would have to be a market for it that would pay the cost of doing this for every single person in the google world. That’s a lot of cost to find out that subject x rides the subway to work every day.

    It also presupposes a lack of revulsion leading to legislation against tying all this data together for commercial and/or government uses.

    It’s kind of a “slippery slope” argument that, carried to its logical conclusion, would allow us to compare google to Hitler.

    Don’t get me wrong. If this sort of stuff starts to materialize, hand me my musket so I can man the barricades.

    • I’d like to think that public backlash will carry the day. But where privacy is concerned, I’m having a hard time finding evidence that we care more about it than we do cool toys.

    • There’s already a huge market for it. Do you know any one that hasn’t had spy ware on their computer?
      “Massive facilities” If you’ve ever had a bank account, credit card, paid taxes, gotten a ticket, had a mortgage, have a SS#, drivers licence, states ID, an IP address all of your personel info can already be Googled. Very little extra storage would be needed.
      Waiting for it to materialize would mean its to late.

      • You don’t think it would take much addition storage? We’re talking about billions of minutes of video, here, sent from all over, that would have to be stored, matched to facial recognition software, with all the audio gone over by speech-to-text. I’m a video producer. Do you have any clue how much storage is needed for HD video? It varies by compression algorithm, of course, but even a highly compressed HD video is going to run 10MB or so per minute, and it pretty much never comes out of a camera that highly compressed.

        • JS: This is all true. But my guess is that Google is going to be dedicating a lot of R&D to improving compression technology. I have no idea what might be possible. Of course, we may also get to the point where storage gets so cheap it doesn’t matter, and here I’m thinking about things I’ve read re: bio storage. I kinda shudder to think what this corner of the world is going to look like in 20 years.

        • Like this:

          Dr Goldman’s new scheme is significant in several ways. He and his team have managed to set a record (739.3 kilobytes) for the amount of unique information encoded. But it has been designed to do far more than that. It should, think the researchers, be easily capable of swallowing the roughly 3 zettabytes (a zettabyte is one billion trillion or 10²¹ bytes) of digital data thought presently to exist in the world and still have room for plenty more. It would do so with a density of around 2.2 petabytes (10¹⁵) per gram; enough, in other words, to fit all the world’s digital information into the back of a lorry. Moreover, their method dramatically reduces the copying errors to which many previous DNA storage attempts have been prone.

        • The storage will become cheap enough, if it’s not already, very quickly. The bigger deal is actually the communications infrastructure. It’s faster and cheaper to send massive data backups by FedEx than it is to do it via the Internet and will be that way for a while. Google Glass will eat transmission bandwidth (both wireless and optical fiber) like nothing else, and that’s likely to be the limiting factor for longer than storage will be.

    • Brian is right on both counts. Look, maybe this will come to pass, but I’m not going to run around holding my head and crying “Woe is me” just yet. Once again, the utility of information on who won at hide and seek between JS O’Brien and his grandchildren is minimal. There is a point where investment in information yields little additional data that are useful to sales and marketing people. Or politicos. Or what have you. It’s like those music reproduction systems that produce high fidelity differences over “ordinary” systems that even dogs can’t hear. At some point, the cost of producing higher and higher “quality” outweighs the utility of that quality. And then, almost no one will pay for it.

      Malthus lives!

      • True. But we know that companies will hire lobbyists to convince Congresspeople that you can’t take a chance with security. There are cynical political dynamics that can override basic economic motivation. The thing you’re doing here is being rational about the word “useful.” As long as there’s a bankroll, justifications can be manufactured for just about anything.

  2. I don’t know. I think it’s plausible that Google will have the hard drive space and the processing resources to make this work. That part, I buy. But the part about being able to do speech-to-text of other subjects with a wearable microphone in normal (read: loud) public environments seems a bit of a stretch.

    With our ears, humans are gifted with a matched stereo pair of what are essentially top-of-the-line microphones. We’re able to hear frequencies slightly above what compact discs can reproduce and we can discern differences in sound volume levels fine enough to appreciate 24-bit audio (read: 256 times as precise as compact discs). With our minds, we are able to process an incredible amount of aural data to sort for direction, distance, tone, separate voices, etc.

    The shows you see on TV where some scientist in a lab is removing this bit of distortion and that bit of background noise from a forensic audio recording, enhancing this property and that, just doesn’t really happen. At work, I’ve got access to the best restoration software available and it’s fantastic. But do I think I could take a compressed recording from a moving bus, with normal ambient engine, cargo, and street noise, possibly multiple conversations, and clean it up well enough that a speech-to-text program could even bat .500? No, I don’t. People with moderate hearing loss who are sitting on that bus will still have a better chance of picking out the dialog than software would.

    I think the best near-term use for something like that would be for speech-to-text software to flag recordings when it thinks it hears words or strings of words on someone’s “do not fly” list; something that would need to be reviewed by a human listener to determine if such words were really spoken.

    I’m also curious what the current state of the art of biometrics is. I know fixed security cameras with a good database can identify targets pretty well, but what about a camera that’s constantly in motion? And what if its database is based on source material that is essentially someone’s facebook snapshots, rather than the clear, expressionless, forward-facing source images that current law enforcement uses?

    And if our cell phone carriers are bitching about the strain that current generation iPhones put on their data networks, I can’t imagine the amount of infrastructure that would be needed to reasonably accommodate a million of these.

    I think there’s reasonable cause for alarm at some point in the future, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

  3. Reblogged this on bookofshadowsandblessings and commented:
    What scares me most is that when i’m out in the world I am rarly alone. I am with my child who so far I have had some control over who has access to see what she looks like. So now you can see her, hear her, hear her name or nicknames and I am sure know where we were (google map). All this adds up to be truly terrifying!

  4. Privacy is gone. I’m 70 and have decided, the best things in life are always simple and free. However, I’m afraid the freedom, simplicity and privacy I enjoyed as a kid will never be experienced by my grandkids.

  5. Thanks for a well written piece, although I disagree that we need to worry.

    Indeed, few people are so adept at futurecasting that I need to worry about what might happen today, based on what might be invented, what might be integrated, and what might be subsequently used for nefarious purposes. In fact, we have enough problems with privacy in there here and now.

    On another note, it seems that dystopian or utopian views of a new technology are always en vogue. It’s a recurring pattern of alarm or arousal at the prospect of how technology will change us. While glass integration with other capabilities could afford the capability to subvert privacy, equally so people may choose to use glass in very different ways than depicted by the authors. In the end, it’s up to us how we use technology.

    • Back in my doctoral program I did paper on what was being called at the time “techno-realism.” A group of people (positivist/utopians every damned one of them) fashioned themselves as neither utopian nor dystopian and hewed the old line you offer here – it isn’t the machine, it’s the person using the machine. There is much sentiment in favor of this idea.

      In the end, I unpacked the ideological dynamics that underpinned this argument and demonstrated that in fact, this neutralist idea ultimately serves the techno-positivist agenda. I wound up writing my dissertation on this very utopian/dystopian tension you’re talking about.

      • Dr. Smith,

        Perhaps I make this argument at my peril given your credentials and obvious command of the subject, but I’ve never been shy so off we go.

        I understand that new technology is more open to construction and mature technology is more structured and thus more deterministic in effect. In addition, I appreciate your concern and the critical stance of the article. Furthermore, I can see how purely constructionist viewpoint might serve the interests of ‘techno-positivists’, insofar as the belief that we can choose how and whether to use a technology gives us some measure of perceived control that may or may not turn out to be true. Historically, there are plenty of examples of both agency and structure driving technology use and its eventual makeup (telegraph, radio, television, Internet). Of course, given this is your field, I am being Captain Obvious here. Indeed, I don’t argue the point. Instead I bring agency into the picture to critique the overwhelming determinism I perceive in your article.

        More importantly, I am reacting to the natural attitude at play here, the affinity we have to adopt deterministic views on the cusp of new technology introduction. It’s been going on since the invention of writing and makes for great headlines, but then fear always does. I’ll quote a notable scholar here to argue for me:

        “And while much has changed in the last couple hundred years, much has also remained the same. Technology has not delivered us unto Bensalem or the shining technotopia on the hill, and neither has it annihilated us completely or chased us back into the caves whence we came.” (Smith, 1997, p.1).

        Accordingly, I don’t think we should be worrying about Google glass chasing us into the cave just yet. Nor do I think we should worry over privacy issues that may or may not rear their head ten years hence. Rather I argue we need to be worrying about the very real privacy concerns we have today that largely go undiscussed in the popular press or the blogosphere.

        Kind regards,



        Smith, S. (1997). The Long View: Enlightenment Ideologies of Science and Technology and the Internet Debate. Retrieved from

        • Heh. You clearly have WAY too much time on your hands… 🙂 It’s good to hear from someone who gets constructivist thinking and the positive/determinist slant of what we’re discussing here.

          First, I can’t agree with you more about the real privacy issues we face today. Even if there were no such idea as Google Glass, we’d have more problems than we may be able to solve. To that end, I further agree that these are more compelling than the Google Glass issue, which is considerably less defined.

          You’re absolutely right about the “natural attitude.” For one thing, there’s a popular tendency toward the tech-neutral perspective you offer earlier. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a “Joe Sixpack” type who didn’t see it that way. Further, there’s an instinctive reach for the utopian upon the introduction of pretty much any new tech (this was what my dissertation dealt with – I started out looking at this dynamic in the Internet debate and somehow, when all was said and done, I have tracked all the way back to Genesis 1).

          In sum, I don’t disagree with you. I do, however, see a need to pay close attention to emerging developments that, in essence, take all of our current problems and double down on them. Google Glass isn’t a new thing so much as it is an improved tool for doing what existing tech already does (or is trying to do). In this respect, it’s best viewed as an extension of the current problems that rightly trouble you. And this is where I’m coming from, I guess. I don’t see GG as a problem of the future, I see it as something very much of the present, and I see it as being more of seamless continuation of the status quo than I do as a discrete iteration.

          All that said, thanks for joining in. We love informed commenters.

        • Dr. Smith,

          I’d love to read the dissertation, but had trouble finding it. Can I bug you for the title?

          And I’m between classes so I do have a little too much time on my hands 🙂

          Kind regards,


        • Actually, it isn’t boredom so much as a desire to understand. So I read the dissertation and perhaps now understand where you are coming from. When determinism and constructivism are situated with the larger technology as ideology narrative, constructivist thought supports the idea of technology as value-nuetral thus impeding any critique (expect perhaps in the realm of science fiction). For if human agency defines whether and how technology is implemented, if ultimately the decision is ours, the march of technical progress is presumed in a fait accompli. If people kill people rather than guns kill people, then we can keep building guns and focus our intervention on people and not the technology. If we accept the determinist argument, we are then in a position to question the policy that governs the introduction of new technology, arguing whether we should produce better guns or not. However, in both cases, the march of technology is presumed, thus technology is ideology. In addition, your dissertation helped me see just how far back the notion of human dominion over the natural world goes. Of course, the central question remains unanswered; does the path of transcendence lie through a return to the natural world or through technological progress? (I don’t expect there is an answer). Thus the question of technology determinism versus constructionism seems to obscure the larger questions. Going back to the Google Glass discussion, at the heart of your argument, it seems you are questioning the extent to which the eventual deployment of this technology will objectify people by turning the consumption of the capability into a system where humans serve the system and become complicit in their own surveillance, objects of another’s ends (Google, the government, or some other actor). I can see the connection to how Facebook has turned people’s desire to connect into a billion + dollar business where privacy is traded for interaction, hence Facebookers are objectified by Facebook. I think I get it, but feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted. Thanks for the discussion. It was particularly satisfying.

        • Sweet fancy tapdancing Jesus – you read it? ALREADY?! Dude, there’s at least one member of my dissertation committee who can’t say that much. (Well, he can, but nobody believes it.)

          There’s a dynamic that underpins my whole argument that isn’t actually IN the dissertation, and you might appreciate the nuance. Begin by understanding how critical Complexity Theory is to my view of the world. In particular, the ability to model things like ideology as we might a biological evolutionary system helps me track how and why certain ideologies survive and thrive while others don’t.

          Now, in the diss, I posit these two competing theologies – the Edenic/Romantic/Dystopian and the New Jerusalem/Enlightenment/Technotopian. If you plot them into a 2×2 table, with the other axis expressing best case/worse case (heaven/hell), something interesting happens. In a society governed by pure, unrestrained utopian ideology, the vision is the shining city on the hill. The likely reality is that you nuke yourself back to the Stone Age. With the technodystopian, the heavenly vision is of undespoiled nature – the Garden of Eden. The practical reality is that you never leave the Stone Age cave in the first place.

          Which means that society only progresses in the presence of both strains, and that the push forward is the measure of progress (or Modernity, if you prefer).

          I spent a lot of time with my head spinning as I was originally concepting all this.

        • Makes sense. The interpretation that popped into my head is that the Edenic/Romantic/Dystopian argument is then an important discussion insofar as it can act as an ethical governor (in the sense of a governor on an engine to keep it from operating outside specific tolerances) to prevent the worst excesses of unbridled technological progress. In that sense both views are part of an ideological system that naturalizes progress, with the dystopian arguments providing a needed voice for ethical rationality. I learned something new today. Thanks.

        • Right. The technotopian impulse keeps us moving forward. The technodystopian reaction keeps us from running headlong off a cliff.

          My diss would have been a better document had I been able to inject the Complexity framework. I was advised against it by my chair, though. That would put a theoretical construct that nobody on the committee understood on the table, and when it comes to dissertations it’s never wise to give them more targets to shoot at. 🙂

        • I wound up working in the corporate world while I finished the diss, then stayed on for awhile. When an academic opportunity came along that looked right, it turned out to be a trainwreck and I left after one year. A few months ago I applied for a position that was so perfectly me it looked like the job description had been plagiarized off my vitae. Didn’t even make the final round.

          At this stage, I can’t imagine how I’d wind up back in the academy. I guess anything is possible, but it’s no longer on the strategic roadmap….

  6. I love it. This dude went through your closet and found your own petard to hoist you by. And he dug around in the back, underneath the old Lou Reed poster and the Lionel Messi jersey. Well done Sammy and well done Richard. Now that’s a great way to carry a debate to a new level.

    Gunther Grass argues, “Information networks straddle the world. Nothing remains concealed. But the sheer volume of information dissolves the information. We are unable to take it all in.”

    Kmart’s POS devices capture a terrabyte of data a day, but they simply store it, then delete it because they can’t do anything with it. I agree this is terrifying, but am not sure it is doable.

    • Hi otherwise,

      Thanks for the acknowledgement. Although I must point out, my intent was to further the discussion to learn something new. Citing Dr. Smith was simply a rhetorical device to get to the heart of the matter. 🙂

      Kind regards,


  7. All of this makes me wonder: Who, exactly, outside Google fully knows Google’s resources and capabilities?

    • Ummm… Who says anybody at Google does? [Actually finding myself mentally humming the Sorceror’s Apprentice as I thought that]

      BTW, enlightening post and comments. Thanks for both. And I’m glad I wasn’t the only one rather gobsmacked by noting the time stamps on the citation for the dissertation and on the having-read-it reply.

  8. It would be interesting to reach back and pull our ancestors in from the Serengeti veldt forward just so they could have a leisurely look around seeing what’s what and who’s who and then we could query them, “Utopia or Dystopia?” Most would have trouble deciding I bet, especially once the under belly of our existence today were revealed.

    Good origin article, enjoyed Sam’s synopsis points, and yet as most of you I continue to remain torn between “Uber geek cool!” and “Jeebus H Cristo! Do we really need to know the color and composition of everyone’s morning constitutional?”

    Today noise is on our side, but machines and politics are constantly whittling at that advantage. Luckily for the human psyche our perceptions are not cumulative over more than a generation or two. My daughter will never fully know the freedoms I enjoyed as a child and so on to the generation following her and beyond. How can we miss what we never experienced?

    Care for a DNA swab anyone?