Friday, February 21, 2014

Privacy And Media Hype

As anyone who works in the IT Industry knows, how easily the media can understand a technical concept and then generate hype about it has a lot to do with how much attention it gets. While sometimes this brings important issues to light other times it lands pretty far off the mark.

Let's take two relatively recent Google projects for example. Project Glass and Project Tango.

Glass has received a ton of media attention and cautionary advice. It seems like every time you read the news someone is writing another article about how suspicious we should be about Glass and it's invasion of our privacy. Law makers, business, and individuals are all getting involved trying to ban, limit, and berate Glass users.

The common tag line is that Glass is a way for someone to photograph you without your knowledge, and while that is true in a sense Glass is not a concealable camera (you wear it on your face). Even if it were, someone interested in photographing you surreptitiously has far better options than a camera sitting on their face (just search spy camera on amazon). We should have some concerns about Google glass, but it's impact on privacy isn't the biggest one. So why does it get talked about so much?

The answer, I believe, is that it's easy to talk about. "Take a picture of you without your knowledge" is an easy concept to understand and thus easy for the media to make scary and get attention about.

So what is Project Tango? I won't go into the gory details, but it's basically a way for you to use your phone to map an environment in 3D. Now that has some real privacy implications. Currently it looks like the technology only maps what's in front of the phone, but it can detect a 3D environment and the movement of the phone apparently pretty well. Google suggest the technology could be used to extend Google Maps beyond streets, help you find things on shelves in large stores, and record the dimensions of your furniture.

Holy crap. That should scare some people. Ask yourself this: How often are you within 50 feet of someone with a smartphone? However often that is is potentially how often there could be a device watching your every move as you wake up in the morning, walk down the street to work, leave your secret spy drop point for all those Russian secrets you are selling, you know, typical every day stuff.

But it isn't getting a whole lot of media hype or concern because it's harder to talk about. It takes more steps to explain how a 3D mapping tool could be a threat to your privacy than to explain that someone could take a picture of you with the girl your cheating on your girlfriend with.

As a disclaimer, I think Project Tango is incredible, really cool stuff. It's probably the natural progression of where technology will go (first we had phones, then we had phones that knew when we touched them, then we had phones that knew which direction they were turned, now we have phones that can map their environment. But we should ask some serious questions about how comfortable we are with this technology being everywhere on the streets and who should be allowed to get at the data it collects.