Google Glass and Data Privacy
Remember when the meteor hit Siberia a few months ago? There was awesome video of the event on all of the news outlets and we all wondered how that happened given the early time of day and the randomness of the event.
The answer was stranger than the act of nature it reported on. Apparently, Siberians are in the habit of equipping their cars with dash-mounted video cameras that record everything that the driver sees happening in front of the car. The cameras, it was revealed, are needed to provide evidence when a pedestrian accidentally falls on a hood and tries to collect damages. The cameras are also useful for refuting spurious claims from corrupt police who might pull motorists over. Some news organizations played a variety of those more pedestrian videos as proof.
So, the car cameras provided serendipitous coverage of the meteor shower that in all likelihood would have been otherwise missed. That’s how I imagine Google Glass — the lensless eyewear that Google is now field testing — becoming part of our lives.
Google Glass is an apparatus that we’ll someday wear to capture reality and enhance our recollections of meetings and other everyday events. It will significantly enhance recall and make memories more precise and I am not looking forward to it. However, I see no reason to be agitated or afraid of Google Glass either.
Nonetheless, I do think that we should have a conversation about memory and storage. How long should these every day videos of normalcy be kept around? Do others have rights concerning our video? What are our responsibilities to others — in other words, how does this affect the social contract?
Memory degrades over time and experts who study this kind of thing have shown that even eyewitness accounts can be faulty. Moreover, even with perfect fidelity and reproduction digital data can also produce faulty information over time.
Really? That’s a tantalizing statement, if I say so myself.
Last week in the New York Times Bill Keller told an interesting story of how such a thing can happen. According to Keller, most states have laws that enable criminal records for some offenses to be wiped clean. In Connecticut the law states that a person with an erased record can even legally testify in court that he or she has never been arrested and booked once the official erasure has been approved by a court.
That sounds good and fair. After all, we all make mistakes, especially when we are “Young and irresponsible,” as George W. Bush once quipped. The trouble is that any ancillary records, such as news articles and video of the moment, are not automatically erased simply because a court erases the record of an incident. The result is an Internet full of historically accurate but legally untrue information, some of it damaging to the individual.
What’s to be done? I really don’t know. The problem of the historically accurate and legally false piece of information is akin to the problem of unsmoking a cigarette. All of this comes crashing down around the Google Glass beta project, which makes it possible for a huge number of these situations to exist someday.
It occurs to me that we have reached a point when we need to acknowledge that 1) No one ever anointed the Internet as the official historian of everyone’s lives and 2) We may need a multi-tiered Internet in which some data is freely available and some is archival and either redacted or otherwise updated to subsequent events.
Perhaps a more natural approach would be useful. What if we treated everyday data as a perishable inventory like milk and produce on a store shelf? After a reasonable period of time, the data could either be automatically deleted or downgraded or placed in private storage and not generally available to the public.
This won’t solve all data security and veracity problems but it will get a conversation going in which some very good ideas are sure to emerge. The European Parliament is now contemplating legislation regarding data security and the individual’s right to be forgotten. The whole issue has many facets that ought to be explored. If you have some ideas about long-term storage of personal experience data that incidentally captures information about other people, I would love to hear from you.