Why is Google Glass the whipping boy for anyone worried about privacy issues?

Other gadgets that don't announce their presence so obviously will continue to do the actual surveillance, argues Rhodri Marsden

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The Independent Tech

While everyone clucks excitedly over the Apple Watch, Google Glass continues to prompt a wave of neo-Luddism, with groups of vigilantes dedicated to neutering, hobbling or destroying the camera-equipped specs. Some might even scream in someone's face to demand their immediate removal, but there are other, more sophisticated approaches.

This week, engineer and artist Julian Oliver announced the availability of a device called Cyborg Unplug; it can be used to kick devices you don't approve of (drones, Google Glass, etc) off your router, and indeed any wi-fi network in the vicinity (although Oliver warns that the latter may be illegal).

Some may cheer this blow that Oliver has struck for our privacy, but in reality his invention doesn't do much. It doesn't stop Google Glass recording footage. The specs can still access the internet through the wearer's phone. And hang on – why aren't said wi-fi networks secured with a password, anyway?

Also, double standards are afoot: Cyborg Unplug is marketed at institutions and businesses ("office, restaurant, school or nightclub") which probably use CCTV to record us as we enter and exit the building. So we rail against a gadget that almost certainly won't be used to compromise our privacy (its main use, after all, is to display information) but fail to throw blankets over the CCTV cameras that do.

This confusion over what's morally acceptable is widespread. We label the wearers of Google Glass as "Glassholes", but happily surrender more information to Facebook than anyone could leach using new-fangled specs. A shopkeeper might admonish a Google Glass wearer, but if covert surveillance was really that person's aim they'd be wearing a less obtrusive brand of camera-equipped glasses that don't indicate when they're recording. Cyclists using helmet-mounted cameras pick up the movements of complete strangers, but they're deemed heroic for exposing bad driving rather than having a book of EU privacy regulations flung at them.

 

"Creepy" is a word that regularly crops up in coverage of Google Glass – I've been guilty of it myself – but this seems to have become an automatic reflex. Last week, a new app that claims to be able to detect the emotions of the person the camera is pointing at was deemed "creepy", but at worst it's a harmless toy (we're pretty good at assessing people's emotions using our own brains, you know) and at best it could be a valuable tool for people suffering from autism. We seem to have lost a sense of proportion; Google Glass has been deemed a threat when in comparison to other technology it's barely a curiosity.

Given the anger it supposedly provokes, you wouldn't be blamed for being fearful of wearing Google Glass at all – but that animosity is almost certainly overstated; Alun Taylor from tech website The Register recently recounted how he wore a pair around Manchester's Trafford Centre for an afternoon and received no harsh words, no uneasy glances. Privacy campaigners might see that as an indication that we're sleepwalking into a surveillance society, but ubiquitous surveillance was normalised long before Google Glass came along.

Hatred of these spectacles seems to be more about raging against "hipster" fashion or corporate power, and while Google Glass is established as the whipping boy for anyone worried about privacy issues, other gadgets that don't announce their presence so obviously will continue to do the actual surveillance.

Twitter.com/rhodri

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