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Privacy war looms over wearable computers

Nick Bilton (via NYT/ SMH) | May 29, 2013
Protectors of privacy and propriety are beginning to speak out.

Jarvis said we've been through a similar ruckus about cameras in public before, in the 1890s when Kodak cameras started to appear in parks and on city streets.

The New York Times addressed people's concerns at the time in an article in August 1899, about a group of camera users, the so-called Kodak fiends, who snapped pictures of women with their new cameras.

"About the cottage colony there is a decided rebellion against the promiscuous use of photographing machines," The Times wrote from Newport, Rhode Island. "Threats are being made against any one who continues to use cameras as freely."

In another article, a woman pulled a knife on a man who tried to take her picture, "demolishing" the camera before going on her way.

This all sounds a bit like the Yooks and Zooks battling over their buttered bread.

Society eventually adapted to these cameras, but not without some struggle, a few broken cameras and lots of court battles. Today we live in a world with more than a billion smartphones with built-in cameras. But, there is a difference between a cellphone and a wearable computer; the former goes in your pocket or purse, the latter hangs on your body.

"Most people are not talking about privacy here, they are talking about social appropriateness," said Thad Starner, who is the director of the Contextual Computing Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a technical adviser to the Google Glass team. He said he believed most people are respectful and would not use their wearable computers inappropriately.

Starner has been experimenting with different types of wearable computers for more than 20 years, and he said that although some people are initially sceptical of the computer above his eye, they soon feel comfortable around the device, and him. "Within two weeks people start to ignore it," he said. Over the years, his wearable computers have become less obtrusive, going from bulky, very visible contraptions, to today's sleeker Google Glass.

Starner said privacy protections would have to be built into these computers. "The way Glass is designed, it has a transparent display so everyone can see what you're doing." He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

But not everyone is so thoughtful, as I learned this month at the Google I/O developer conference when people lurked around every corner, including the bathroom, wearing their glasses that could take a picture with a wink.

By the end of The Butter Battle Book, the arms race has escalated to a point at which both sides have developed bombs that can destroy the world. As two old men, a Yook and a Zook, debate what to do next, the story ends with one saying: "We'll just have to be patient. We'll see, we'll see."


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