The surveillance society has been emerging gradually — from photos of wars and disasters documented in still photos through the early 20th century, to newsreels, to the Zapruder film in 1963, capturing the assassination of President Kennedy. Shows like Candid Camera soon emerged as entertainment as television widened the availability of moving pictures tremendously and television cameras became so small and available that you could place “secret” ones. Ambient recordings became a centerpiece of an impeachment scandal in the US with Watergate.
More and smaller devices — both input and output devices — generated more information and less secrecy.
Fast-forward to the modern day, and we have phone video of Saddam Hussein’s last moments and a surreptitious video that hamstrung Mitt Romney’s presidential run, as well as journalists now regularly calling for (and receiving) eyewitness videos for events both big and small. We watch these on our tablets and phones. And then there’s this whole YouTube thing . . .
Throughout all this, the balance of privacy and transparency has proven elusive.
The pending launch of Google Glass promises to bring ambient video and audio recording into daily life in a new way, which will have a significant effect on businesses, personal interactions, public events, and private moments, as a smart post by Mark Hurst from the Creative Good blog points out:
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. . . . 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. . . . Anywhere you go in public – any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway – you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video.
Hurst mentions the natural counter-argument — surveillance cameras are all around us, so this isn’t much different. But it is different for some important reasons, he feels:
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. . . . 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). . . . 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.
As Hurst notes, Google has a lot of symbiotic technologies, which Glass would serve. In addition to the processing technologies he refers to, Google owns YouTube. Google has its search engine. Google has Android. Google owns Zagat. Google owns Frommers. Google has Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View. You could become a franchise player in the right video — but would you get a franchise contract?
As Hurst puts it (and he should know, because he predicted this in his book from 2007, “Bit Literacy”):
The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.
Hurst strikes the tone of someone concerned about how this will change society. It’s a tone Julian Assange has been striking around his efforts through Wikileaks. He believes we should work toward a society with “privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful.” Ambient surveillance doesn’t fit with this view.
Meanwhile, others are thinking the change may be for the better. These people, who feel that a transparent society is freer and better society, make their point in a recent article about cypherpunk culture in the Verge. David Brin, author of “The Transparent Society,” is quoted extensively:
[the ethic of privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful is] already enshrined in law. A meek normal person can sue for invasion of privacy, a prominent person may not. But at a deeper level [Assange's statement] is simply stupid. Any loophole in transparency ‘to protect the meek’ can far better be exploited by the mighty than by the meek. . . . The meek can never verify that their bought algorithm and service is working as promised, or isn’t a bought-out front for the NSA or a criminal gang. Above all, protecting the weak or meek with shadows and cutouts and privacy laws is like setting up Potemkin villages, designed to create surface illusions.
Adrian Lamo, who turned in Bradley Manning for his release of military files to Wikileaks, is quoted as saying:
Privacy is quite dead. That people still worship at its corpse doesn’t change that. In [the unreleased documentary] Hackers Wanted I gave out my SSN, and I’ve never had cause to regret that. Anyone could get it trivially. The biggest threat to our privacy is our own limited understanding of how little privacy we truly have.
Perhaps a leveling of the playing field is what we need. If very little is truly private — or is private only for a short time — isn’t it better to have multiple perspectives on events rather than only the authorities’ perspective? Unfortunately, the line between private information and government information is blurry. Last year, the US government’s requests for data about Google’s users increased 37%. Granted, the number of requests remains small, but precedents can expand into large programs once set.
To some, it seems that even as more information has become available, less freedom has become the norm. One of these people is Jacob Applebaum, an independent computer security expert affiliated occasionally with Wikileaks. He lists a number of examples of diminished freedoms, including indefinite detention under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, warrantless wiretaps, state-sanctioned drone strikes, state-sponsored malware, and the Patriot Act.
The Galgenhumor of our era revolves around things that most people simply thought impossible in our lifetime. It isn’t a great time to be a dissenting voice of any kind in our American empire. What we will remember is the absolute silence of so many, when the above things became normalized.
Yet, politics driven by terrorism often brings relatively brief (and regrettable) infringements on freedoms. There is a historical frame to these times, one we’ve seen before — and apparently haven’t learned from. At the same time, governments find themselves just as confused over privacy and information availability as anyone — from legitimately trying to protect data used in scientific research, medical records, and financial transactions to more questionable projects like the Patriot Act. Where is the line? It’s temporal and elusive. Even the proper definition of “privacy” often seems slippery. Do we really want terrorists or criminals to have as much privacy as the rest of us?
Where does privacy begin and end? How is it different from secrecy? And how do researchers and publishers navigate these waters in the future?
When you find the answer, tell it to someone wearing Google Glass. Maybe we’ll all see it shortly thereafter.