From Kodak To Google, How Privacy Panics Distort Policy

When a new technology comes out, people are generally good at seeing through the hype that is associated with it. Many technological inventions, after all, are not immediately revolutionary — despite what clever marketers might want you to believe.

However, people are often bad about seeing through the outsized claims from another type of clever marketer: professional privacy advocates who routinely say new technologies spell doom to the privacy of those who use them.

While these fears often never materialize, and the public comes to accept the new technology as they become familiar with it, time and time again people fall into the trap of believing exaggerated claims about privacy risks for new technologies.

This cycle of panic-then-acceptance can slow innovation and adoption of new technologies. To be sure, some technologies have challenged traditional notions of privacy, or even presented new risks to consumers, and to the extent that there are legitimate risks of consumer harm, these concerns should be taken seriously. However, it is important to recognize that the privacy panic cycle is a detrimental one — with a long historical precedent.

In 1888, when George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera, the first portable camera, amateur photographers everywhere were delighted with the relatively inexpensive, newfound ability to capture everyday motion, or “snapshots.” However, despite praise over the invention, the Kodak camera also set off a privacy-charged panic. While many people quickly adopted the technology, others became terrified that thoughtless shutterbugs would take embarrassing pictures of them without their permission.

People using the devices were soon labeled “Kodak fiends,” and the technology was banned from businesses, beaches and even the Washington Monument. In fact, one journalist described a situation in which young men in Britain formed a “Vigilance Association” with the sole purpose of “thrashing the cads with cameras who go about at seaside places taking snapshots of ladies emerging from the deep.” This hysteria died by 1910, as increasing numbers of people adopted the technology. The bans were lifted, and social norms developed around candid photography to act as a disincentive to rude behavior.

By creating public fears about new technology, privacy advocates slow the adoption of beneficial new technologies.

When it comes to privacy concerns for nascent technologies, however, history repeats itself. Indeed, other technologies would soon have their “Kodak moment.” When first unveiled in 2012, many thought the promise of Google Glass was extraordinary — a pair of futuristic glasses that could augment reality or live stream your world. Both the public and the press were fascinated by the technology. For example, it scored a 12-page spread in VOGUE magazine, was named one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012 and earned praise from a host of other publications.

Despite the enthusiasm for its potential impact, Google Glass received a huge privacy backlash. Many people saw its recording function as creepy, or mistakenly believed the device was constantly recording. Soon businesses started banning the devices from their premises. One group, called Stop the Cyborgs, offered free anti-Google Glass signs and art on its website for these businesses to notify customers the technology was prohibited. People even invented a nickname for the wearers of Google Glass, calling them “glassholes,” a phrase that harkens back to the “Kodak fiends” of the late 1800s.

By creating public fears about new technology, privacy advocates slow the adoption of beneficial new technologies. But that is not the only problem with taking these fearful claims at face value. Overwrought privacy fears can lead to ill-conceived policy responses that either purposely hinder or fail to adequately promote useful technologies.

For example, U.S. policymakers have delayed the adoption of various public-sector technologies, such as smart meters that monitor electrical usage, in part because of the pushback these technologies have received from overzealous advocates.

We will continue to see the privacy panic cycle distort the public reception of new technologies unless we begin to recognize it. Technologies will always have some tradeoffs, and there is no question that we need smart policies that both mitigate concerns and optimize societal benefits. But when privacy advocates merely scare consumers away from innovation rather than working to create sensible solutions for integrating useful new technologies into society, they slow the pace of economic and social progress.