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Why Google Glass Makes Some People Uneasy in This Digital Age

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Where do we draw the line when it comes to infringing on each other’s privacy?  That’s the question at the center of a controversy involving a diner recently kicked out of a Seattle restaurant for refusing to remove his Google Glass.

That patron, Nick Starr, has been making headlines since he wore out his welcome at Lost Lake Café last week. The Capitol Hill diner is co-owned by Nick Meinart, who also owns the 5 Point Café, which banned Google Glass in March.

Lost Lake, on its Facebook page, said its rationale behind banning Google Glass is to prevent patrons photographing and videotaping others. But Starr claims the policy is inconsistent with the restaurant’s request for patrons to take photosand post them to Instagram using the hashtag#lostlakecafe.

“So how is an establishment which is REQUESTING photos be taken, not allow me to bring a device which takes photos and can post to Instagram?” Starr wrote on his Facebook page.

Of course, smartphones, which are allowed at Lost Lake, can also take photos and videos of others, which all begs the question: Why, in this digital age of geolocation and near-constant surveillance, do we see Google Glass differently?

“It’s so obviously in our face that we’re going to take issue with it,” said Adam Moore, a University of Washington professor who specializes in information ethics. “A lot of times, we’re not thinking about it [surveillance]. It’s working in the background; we’re not aware of it.”

Technology—Not Society—Making Big Decisions

The Google Glass controversy comes down to these questions, said Moore: “What do we owe each other in terms of information sharing? What do you have no business knowing about me? Just because I’m in public, do I waive all rights to information about me for future use?”

“We need to have this more general philosophical and ethical discussion rather than always trying to play catch-up to some new advancement in technology or method of surveillance,” he said.

As it stands now, because technology is determining the boundaries, Moore said we are inclined to grow anxious when Glass-wearers are nearby, even if they’re just browsing the web. 

Connecting the Dots in a Searchable Way?

Photos and videos taken nonchalantly in public places can later become a key piece of a bigger puzzle, said Moore.

"Putting me at a place and a time at all times to be searched—that’s really different from me noticing you’re at the café, because that dies with my memory," he said. "The premise is with all of us wearing the Glass all the time, we can jump from Glass to Glass [for captured information]."

Moore thinks some of the fear surrounding Google Glass might stem from the name itself.

“It might be that it’s Google, and it’s this search engine that’s somehow going to get at this data and mine it in a way that all these disparate cameras all over the place couldn’t," he said. 

No Way to Hide

What’s more, said Moore, with technology available for facial recognition and gait recognition, the “the old-fashioned ways” to hide one’s identity—like wearing a disguise, or paying with cash—are becoming inept.

“Even if the data is anonymized and things that identify you as you are removed, big data can use algorithms and pull the rabbit out of a hat and re-identify you,” he said.

“There are all sorts of technologies that can be used to violate privacy, intellectual property rights, free speech rights, anonymous gathering, etc. But ‘can’ does not imply ‘should.’”