Privacy SOS

Google glasses and our collective failure to act on digital privacy

Imagine! Glasses (or someday contact lenses?) that allow you to see the internet! Like that cool table at your friend's house? Find out how much it costs and where to get it simply by looking at it. Curious about apartments in this neighborhood? Look around and magically call up Craigslist onto your eye/face/screen/whatever. You'll never wonder anything for longer than two seconds, ever again! (Except maybe if that cutie at the gym likes you back. Google most likely doesn't know that, yet.)

Lots of the geek blogs are having a field day today (Live blogs! Tweet storms!) because Google hosted a press event about Google Glass and the company's other new fancy wares. Allow me to dampen some of the excitement with a needed dose of augmented reality reality. (Typical, right?!)

But before I do you-know-what to everyone's geek parade, look at this demo thing Google released:

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

Now the major bummer reality dose. What could possibly go wrong? 

Here's a short version: since 9/11, the US government and private corporations (sup Google?) have invested billions of dollars (or more?) in research and development seeking the latest and greatest surveillance technologies and/or weapons. Some of this research is done under the auspices of medicine; other technologies, like face recognition, are developed on parallel tracks by both the private sector and the military and intelligence worlds. 

Much of this research is secret. What are revealed to the public are often projects or ideas that are well on their way to completion, if they haven't already flooded the market. So what?

The problem is that all that government money funding research and procurement of surveillance technologies does not come with laws to restrict privacy-invasive deployments of said tools.

It never does, in fact.

Therefore we get to where we are today: a world wherein Congress last updated our electronic communications privacy law in 1986 — before GPS, the internet, face recognition, and smart phones were anything but geek or sci-fi dreams. It is a world wherein the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice fund largely (or effectively) secret research and procurement of all sorts of invasive surveillance and monitoring tools, all without any public process whatsoever or moves to protect ordinary people from their all-seeing power once the tools hit the market.

In most cases, like with license plate trackers, the states have also failed to protect us from these privacy nightmares. This isn't a future problem; we are living it.

If Congress can't update the law to bring the Fourth Amendment into the digital age, and if most states can't be bothered to even pretend to care about the free money flooding our local and state police departments for crazy invasive surveillance tools, we need to look carefully at each new exciting but potentially invasive technology that comes our way.

Our failure to act on electronic privacy is a bummer because a lot of this technology is extremely cool and enables us to do awesome stuff that generally makes our lives easier or more exciting. But it's true: we have failed, and we largely continue to fail — despite our many efforts. So we need to keep saying it until Congress gets the message: we want our liberty and our technology, thank you very much. The latter without the former is creating a techno-surveillance state nightmare. And look: people actually like the Fourth Amendment!

Companies like Google actually get that. That's why they've joined organizations like the ACLU and EFF to demand that Congress update electronic communications privacy law. Google, Apple and other technology companies recognize that as people become more aware of the astounding power the government has granted itself with respect to digital snooping, consumers/people will shirk away from sharing more information about themselves on their devices. And if anything is clear it's that technology companies really, really want us to share.

So what of the Google glasses? It doesn't take a lot of creativity to imagine how a technology like this could be abused in the hands of the government — or your average creepy stalker, for that matter. It takes so little imagination, in fact, that Hollywood dreamed it up decades ago: Skip to 0:58.

Police are already extremely excited about mobile biometrics, and predictably, state and federal lawmakers have been eerily silent on the privacy issues associated with the technology. 

So sure, the Google glasses are potentially cool. But we are putting the cart way, way before the horse, again and again. It's well past time for that to change.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.