OK Glass, RIP Privacy: The Democratization Of Surveillance

How’s this for synchronicity: Google Glass started shipping on the same week that CISPA passed the House, 3DRobotics unveiled their new site, and 4chan and Reddit pored over surveillance photos trying to crowdsource the identity of the Boston bombers.

Cameras on phones. Cameras on drones. Cameras on glasses. Cameras atop stores, in ATMs, on the street, on lapels, up high in the sky. Modern cars log detailed data their manufacturers can access if they so desire. Oh, and “if you carry a phone, your location is being recorded every minute of every day.”

In 1999, Sun CEO Scott McNealy said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Sadly, that sounds more prophetic every week.

I’ve been arguing for years that “Soon enough, pseudonymity and anonymity will only exist online; in the real world…they’ll be more or less extinct.” The hunt for the Boston bombers is to the coming world of surveillance as a 1980s PC is to a modern server farm. Facial recognition, gait recognition, drones the size of dragonflies — all here already. Just imagine twenty years from now. Every step you take outside will automatically be tracked, indexed, and correlated to all of your previous activity ever.

One can reasonably dispute whether the collective crowdsourced 4chan/Reddit attempt to identify the Boston bomber was a good thing or not, and interesting people are engaged in both sides of just that argument


— but to me, the important thing is the precedent it sets.

A lot of people (just read the comments on my last Google Glass post) are seriously squicked by the possibility of individual video surveillance, but are essentially OK with being watched by governments or corporations. I think that is an extremely wrong and dangerous attitude, because I believe one-way transparency will inevitably breed corruption and abuse.

I am not in favor of the death of personal privacy in public spaces. I just think it’s inevitable. Soon enough cameras and surveillance software will be ubiquitous. There are already terrified voices, eg Farhad Manjoo’s, crying for “installing surveillance cameras everywhere” on the eyebrow-raising grounds that “we’re already being watched—just not systematically”.

And that’s why–despite its potentially undesirable social side effects–I’m a cheerleader for Google Glass and its ilk. If transparency will be forced on us, then it needs to be two-way transparency. It’s a given that the strong and rich will be able to watch the weak and poor; we need to ensure that the converse is possible as well. We need to democratize surveillance, and Google Glass is the first of a new kind of tool which can help us do just that.

For instance, I’d like law enforcement, border patrol, the TSA, and other authorities to wear Glass-like cameras at all time, and for that video to be accessible by the public when the abuse of authority is alleged. Interestingly, there’s now some real data supporting that stance: “Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers.”

In the words of the ACLU:

We don’t like the networks of police-run video cameras that are being set up in an increasing number of cities. We don’t think the government should be watching over the population en masse. [but] When it comes to the citizenry watching the government, we like that.

Giving the public some access to police footage isn’t enough, though. We need the people to be able to watch and record their government, just as their government keeps them under constant surveillance. Unfortunately, that inevitably also means that individuals can and will frequently surveil and record each other. Which means bullying, stalking, trolling, and doxing on, well, almost a New York Post scale:

I’m not happy about any of this. But drastically increased surveillance in public places is inevitable. Sorry. It’s just going to be too cheap, too easy, too convenient, and too reassuring to too many. Two-way transparency, however, will be a huge battle. The powers that be have every incentive to foster a moral panic about the stalker evils of personal cameras like Google Glass, and crowdsourced surveillance like that of 4chan and Reddit.

Again, I don’t actually think either is necessarily desirable in and of themselves. But I fear that they’re the price we’ll have to pay to have a society relatively free of systematic hierarchical abuse of authority and power — because, more and more, we live in a world where privacy is power.

Image credit: Lingeswaran Marimuthukumar, Flickr.