Well, this was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. In the ultimate mash up of social media, wearable technology, and facial recognition, a company called NameTag has produced an app for Android, iOS, and Google Glass that will allow you to snap a photo of a stranger and then match it against photos in social networks and dating sites to find out who they are.
Frankly, I already disliked Google Glass, and this just confirms that judgment in spades. And I am talking about visceral, deep-seated unease and distaste. Indeed, while I normally try not to judge people on their appearance or what they wear, I am now stating publicly that if you are wearing Google Glass I will deliberately avoid contact with you, and if you try to talk to me I will refuse unless you take them off.
Sound extreme? Unfortunately an extreme response is called for when technology becomes invasive thanks to people who, apparently, lack any sort of common sense or understanding of social boundaries.
Now I can just hear the tech apostles making all the predictable arguments. You could just as easily snap a photo of someone with a smartphone, since the NameTag app works with Android and iOS too. Presumably the Google Glass wearer and myself are both out in public, and everyone knows that you expose yourself to photography and other types of recording in the public realm. And I chose to make those photos public on social media, so I can’t complain if someone just uses a simple facial recognition app to figure out who I am.
My response, in a word, is: no. No, no, no, no. First of all, it’s true you can snap a photo of someone with a smartphone, but the crucial difference is that it’s usually much more obvious when someone is handling a smartphone, as opposed to Google Glass, which lets you take a picture by winking. True, people can be surreptitious about taking pictures with their smartphones, but I think it’s significant that most of us would judge these people for violating social norms (everyone who approves of the up-skirt subway photo voyeur guy, raise your hands). And the measures proposed to remedy this issue -- for example, the “shutter snapping” noise mandated for wearable tech in Japan, to let people know you’re taking a picture of them -- are totally inadequate for a loud, crowded public space.
On a related note, our expectations of what may happen to us out in public were formed in that quaint period of history before people started walking around with computers on their faces. And one of our common, shared expectations was the assumption that if we don’t know someone -- meaning we have never been introduced, never even chatted in line for coffee -- then they don’t know us. That fact has been central to our social world since human beings existed; that’s why all cultures have elaborate rules for dealing with strangers. And again, it’s significant that violations of this norm seem creepy to us: if you ask someone to describe a situation where a random stranger knows everything about another individual, who remains totally ignorant that this is happening, one word you might hear is “stalking.”
On the third point, it’s true that people have voluntarily posted pictures of themselves on social media Web sites, but what were their expectations when they did this? Did they, with amazing prescience, guess that a day would come when people wearing computer glasses could take pictures of them and match them against their profiles to figure out who they are? And is it now reasonable to expect them to have to alter their privacy settings or take down all their photos if they wish to avoid being identified by facial recognition apps? What about people tagged in other people’s photos?
The founders of Google and Facebook have both stated that it is their mission to organize and foster the sharing of information, and this is all well and good. But their pursuit of this goal has (again, probably inevitably) now brought us all to a stage in which the fundamental norms of human society -- in this case the reasonable expectation of anonymity in public -- are being overturned. Let's proceed with caution! And if you’re wearing Google Glass, stay away from me, thanks.