Surveillance Society & Google Glasses-Type Stuff

There’s a bit of hyperbole involved with a lot of Big Brother scenarios, but worst case scenarios are still worth talking about because we need to be able to talk about what’s possible with technology, how it can be abused by those with an agenda, and which lines can be established to prevent those abuses. What really irritates me is all the people who naively assume that people like me wanted privacy because we’re all easily embarrassed stupid klutzes, impolite assholes, or criminals.

No. Just no.

Entirely innocent things can be made into “crimes” to be punished. I want privacy because, for example, I don’t want to be turned down for a job. I don’t want my potential boss to able to enter my name into Google and find someone’s passive recording of an overheard conversation that did a bit of facial recognition and transcription, outing me as a liberal. Or an atheist. Or an anime fan. Or a D&D fan. Those things aren’t an employer’s business and right now, I’m not confident I can trust one to disregard what shows up about my personal life if he’s got an agenda that makes him think I’m satanic for having certain opinions or hobbies. I don’t want them to have easy access to my innocent conversations because they’re in a position of power and may have a corrupting agenda. They can punish me by turning me down for the job and manufacture a plausible rationalization for the courts if they get involved. I shouldn’t be shamed into hiding my politics, atheism, or hobbies at a dinner table in a small private gathering at a restaurant and I shouldn’t have to cede the power of discrimination to people who abuse technology to get that information.

I’m fine with general security cameras. They’re above eye level. They tend to have low resolution. They usually don’t record sound. They’re usually in a context where I wouldn’t expect a semi-private area. In principle, the records are only looked at if there’s trouble to justify looking, otherwise, they get overwritten or thrown out. They aren’t shared in the cloud. They’re not so easily searchable.

I’m fine with people having smart phones with cameras. It takes some level of conscious effort to start recording, and when not in use, they’re usually in a pocket or a case with the camera blocked. Casual recording is a bit on the conspicuous side, since users commonly hold up the device to consciously get a good angle for their recording, which can serve as a notification for me to watch myself. The user has case-by-case control over the recording and the sharing of information in the video. I carry a not-so-smart phone with a camera, and in the rare instances I do use it, it’s in a generally obvious manner. If someone objects (assuming we aren’t talking about a crime or something extremely or necessarily public), I’ll most likely delete the recording or, at the very least, assure them that I’ll blur or black out their faces. If I post it online (not likely), I’ll obscure faces if I suspect there’s a reasonable chance of negative consequences for the people in the background.

Without automatic facial recognition, my overheard opinions are more likely to be viewed as from “that guy,” rather than attached to my uncommon name, which could direct people’s attention to a video if they entered my name as a search term. Without automatic electronic transcription, my words are more likely equivalent to background noise, rather than potential search terms. Without automatic internet storage and availability, the recording is less likely to be seen online. If a human has to request each of those things, it’s going to add barriers to abusers looking for excuses to discriminate. With a specific action to begin and end recording, users are less likely to accidentally record something people don’t want seen. I think Google Glasses and similar technology will be a big problem if automatic is made the easy default setting and if the culture allows people to record without thinking about the potential consequences for others. If human control is the default, and if there is a cultural expectation of responsible recording, there’s less reason to worry about it.

I’d rather regular people not make a habit of carrying around hidden cameras for casual purposes. If they do, I’d want it to be a socially accepted rule that a user makes it clear that they’re recording so other people can modify their behavior if they don’t want certain things recorded, get out of view of the recording, or object to being recorded so the user can find a better time or place without treading on anyone’s toes. If they don’t know they’re being recorded, they likely can’t object until after the damage is done.

Thinking about this, there should be some degrees of privacy, rather than a simple dichotomy of private and public. I shouldn’t have to retreat into my home if I don’t want my innocent activities or minority opinions to be searchable. Going to a restaurant and having a natural conversation with my family and our private context-sensitive in-jokes and rough ideas overheard by the next table shouldn’t be viewed as equivalent to proudly posting the same content on a public blog under my real name with a photo attached.

It’s not the technology that I object to, it’s short-sightedness, naivete about the potential for corruption, lack of empathy, the Just World Hypothesis rationalizations for social retribution, sense of entitlement, privilege blindness, and so forth that some people display when they talk over-positively about surveillance technologies. We need our culture to advance so that people are more aware of possible abuses so that we can better guard against them and have appropriate laws and social mores to mitigate the problems. From my point of view, the problem isn’t that I’m a Luddite who wants to hold back technology, it’s that they’re holding back our culture, condoning or rationalizing new means of discrimination without realizing it.

If you don’t want people like me to worry about the abuses we can conceive of, focus on telling us what’s in place to prevent them.

10 responses to “Surveillance Society & Google Glasses-Type Stuff

  1. You raise some good points and I understand your concerns about a world of convenient little cameras leading to the uploading of countless pictures and footage that may well contain people who are unaware of their new ‘fame’.
    I was rather slow to include a lot of newer technology in my life. I was way behind most of my family and friends, purchasing a mobile years after the rest of the world owned one. Just having a computer at home took me a very long time. I don’t think this shows anything wrong with me. I just have less interest in them.
    Good post and a subject I can relate to.

    • I felt the same way about bank cards for years. It wasn’t until the banks started charging heftier fees per transaction at the teller’s window that I finally caved and got one. (These fees did not apply to transactions conducted at the ATM.) I’m still not comfortable having so much of my financial life automated, and absolutely refuse to take my banking and bill payments online, or to even pay bills via phone. Although, if the past is any indicator of what the future might bring, there may come a day where this choice is taken from me.

  2. Will the time come when objecting to being filmed is the minority opinion? I already get weird looks when someone (hate to stereotype,but usually someone younger than me) pulls out a cell phone and I ask that whatever’s being recorded doesn’t get uploaded to Youtube. They tell me to lighten up, it’s no big deal, it will only be shared with a few immediate friends… on youtube…

    There is only one internet, people forget that. I remember making a Geocities site splattered with my own personal information, before becoming very aware that no, it isn’t “just a few friends”, it is now visible by everyone that exists. Unfortunately, the internet has been “normalized”.

    • That’s one problem people need to teach their kids about. The internet isn’t a local thing. If you post it online without some measures to control access, it’s available to the whole world. There’s one segment of internet culture devoted to making people document their lives on Twitter and Facebook, and wind up causing damage when they get attention for something embarrassing.

      What we need to do as a culture is make people more aware of their actions and the possible consequences where the internet is involved. The internet is not a game. It’s not pretend. It’s a wide-reaching part of real life. It’s not just about you because your actions can also harm others.

  3. Your post is interesting and I can certainly see your point, however, if you’re having to moderate your opinions because you’re afraid that your employer (future or otherwise) might disapprove and seek to impose sanctions upon you because of those opinions then either a) you have (or are looking for) the wrong employer or b) you hold opinions that would justify such activity (such as violently subversive tendancies or a pathological hatred for your employer). Call me naive perhaps, or it’s possibly because my work environment isn’t so politically charged, but the concept of being disciplined at work or denied a job because of my liberal and atheistic personal views is inconceivable.

    If you’re unhappy with someone being aware of something that you’ve said, then don’t say it out loud. Or alternatively, like you can do online as a blogger, say it with as much anonymity as you can muster. Despite your fears about malicious people in power using your spoken word as leverage to further their agenda, they’ve always been able to do this via private detectives or recording phone calls taken at work. Privacy is an illusion fostered by our modern conceptions of personal ownership and the right to a secure home environment. It’s a relatively recent concept. In theory, every security agency in the world could be recording every aspect of your life, but practical terms, they’re probably not.

    To be a little snarky (because where would an online comment be without it) this seems less about concerns over privacy, but more about a personal paranoia that, yes indeed, they are after you.

    • I live in Texas, and we have a lot of radical right wingnuts, here. If I’m applying for a job, I can’t know what kind of boss they are by a casual glance. It doesn’t help that my brother once got stuck with a rather hostile workplace thanks to his fundamentalist boss, and this was at a government job. It doesn’t help that I’ve grown up encountering loonies who were convinced my gaming hobbies were satanic and/or caused suicide.

      The thing about personal investigators and work calls: I can filter my conversations at work. They also have to actively hire investigators, rather than type a few words into a search engine. That adds barriers.

      • Mmmm, Texas. I sympathise. Move over here to the UK where it’s the opposite.

        On a more constructive note, doesn’t the ACLU help people fight their employers on basis like this? Especially in a government workplace – making things difficult in state employment because of religious affiliations? Sounds like a job for the Constitution.

        I’m finding it increasingly amusing and concerning that a country with a clear legal distinction between religion and the state seems to be drifting towards theocracy in certain places, wheras in the shiny EU, where church and state regulary get into bed together, we’ve never been more secular.

      • Yeah. I certainly understand the mixture of amusement and concern from across the pond. On paper, I’d expect a country with laws like ours to be secular. (Wasn’t Japan’s constitution rewritten to be similar to the US’s after WWII?) Ironically, in some ways it’s lead to more radicalized religion because it makes religion a personal or group identity choice, rather than something to be changed whenever a new monarch came to power in the region.

        One thing that makes the situation here look so worrying is that it’s hard to gauge the relative risk due to numbers versus volume and tenacity. From what I’ve read, the fundamentalists are losing ground in numbers, but they’re making up for it by audacity, stubbornness, and networking. Part of the fear is that even if I had a fundie boss get chewed out by the courts with the help of the ACLU, they’d go right back to doing their thing once the legal heat died down and shamelessly lie to the public about what really happened. They could also provide unwanted celebrity status for me and let anonymous assholes go wild with intimidation techniques for years to come.

        It doesn’t help that going to court is pretty scary for a non-rich person. The justice system is pretty broken and expensive, especially in Texas, where judges are elected.

        I do plan on moving out of Texas eventually, but I don’t have the financial stability I need, yet. Probably going to need to grow thick skin so I can withstand more northern climates.

  4. Yes, there are legal solutions, but unfortunately it puts the person with less power in the unsavory situation of needing to defend themselves. As a result, it is simply “safer” to censor yourself than risk having to turn your life upside down.

    There’s also one simple fact. Anyone that actually gets the will to sue their boss for this will have a VERY hard time getting hired in the future. Bosses will come up with some arbitrary unrelated reason, or heck, they often don’t even have to come up with something. They can simply say “I believe this person was more qualified” without going into details. Is someone forced to sue every single person that fails to hire them? That’s one hell of an unbalanced burden.

    The answer is privacy. I don’t agree that privacy is an “illusion”. In some ways, privacy is more “real” than even the concept of ownership, in that you can actually say “I physically can’t see what is on the other side of this wall”, but you can’t say “I can’t own this because I can’t actually pick it up”. Private investigators are limited, and they are conspicuous, what with their newspapers with holes in them and their brown trench coats and their magnifying glasses (I uh, I have no idea what investigators actually look like so I’m going with pulp fiction stereotypes here). But really, human beings wandering around snooping are a lot easier to become aware of than countless reams of uploaded video streams.

    In the end it comes down to this. I have NOTHING that, legally, I feel the need to hide. I’m actually an extremely plain person. And yet, the idea of everything being recorded when I’m out in public deeply disturbs me. Isn’t that enough of a reason to take issue with it?

  5. The flipside is that it’s much easier to document harassment or uniformed goons (cops, security guards) behaving badly. Not sure it balances out though.

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