Embedded sensors provide us with a range of conveniences that many of us take for granted in our everyday life.
They first appeared in static items — everything from auto-flushing the common lavatory to auto-dispensing of soap and water for handwashing.
Then these sensors — for identification, location, condition monitoring, point-of-view and more — were embedded in mobile objects. Our vehicles, tablets, smart phones, even contactless smart cards say a lot about our behaviors, traits, likes and dislikes as we lug them around with us everywhere we go.
In a way, we've become an extension of these technological breakthroughs. The devices we carry take on a life of their own — sending binary data upstream and downstream in the name of better connectivity, awareness, and ambient intelligence.
But it seems we want more — or at least that is what the tech giants are leading us to believe.
Enter wearable computers — digital glasses, watches, headbands, armbands and other apparel that can lifelog and record visual evidence — tell you where you are on the Earth's surface and how to navigate to your destination, alert you of your physical condition (heart and pulse rate monitors), and even inform you when you are running late to catch a plane, offering rescheduling advice. These devices are windows to others through social networking, are bridges to storage centers, and even on occasion are companions as they listen to your commands and respond like a personal assistant.
For example, Google Glass, is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display that acts on voice commands like “take a picture” and allows you to record hands free. You can share what you see live with your social network and it provides directions right in front of your eyes. Glass even syncs your deadlines with speed, distance, and time data critical to forthcoming appointments.
Google is not alone.
Microsoft was in the business of life-logging more than a decade ago with its SenseCam device, which has now been replaced by the Autographer. Initially developed to help those suffering with dementia as a memory aid, the Autographer takes a five-megapixel picture about 2000 times a day and can be replayed in fast-forward mode in about five minutes. It is jam-packed with sensors that provide a context for the photo including: accelerometer, light sensor, magnetometer, infra-red motion detector, and thermometer, and also contains a GPS chipset.
The slim-line Memoto is the latest gadget to enter the wearable space. Far less obtrusive than Glass or Autographer, it can be pinned onto your shirt. It takes a snap every 30 seconds, and is so lightweight that you quickly forget you are even wearing it.
These devices make computers part of the human interface. But what are the implications of inviting all this technology onto the body?
What are the implications for individuals, families, businesses and society at large, if everywhere we go we are connected to the “web of things” and people, and we continue to thoughtlessly and almost unconsciously leave behind intricate and intimate digital chronicles of ourselves as we interact with the world around us?
We seem to be producing innovations at an ever-increasing rate and expect adoption to match that cycle of change. But while humans have limitations, technologies do not.
We can keep developing at an incredible speed, but there are many questions about trust, privacy, security, and the effects on psychological well-being, that if left unaddressed could have major risky and often negative societal effects.
In research we conducted into location-based services in Australia we found people trust technology and its conclusions more than they trust a first-person eyewitness account. This is especially true of locational information taken from GPS devices, despite that plotted coordinates are not always accurate or reliable.
For example, partners became suspicious of their loved one if they perceived them to be loitering for extended periods of time at points of interest (for example, a train station).
In other cases parents who used GPS location-based social networking apps were surprised how curious they were in tracking their children, even if they were young adults. What had been setup for an easy pickup capability was being used for secondary purposes.
The most invasive feature of all these wearables however, is the image sensor that can take pictures in an outward-looking fashion.
The claim is often made that we are under surveillance by CCTV even within leisure centers and change rooms. But having a Glass device, Autographer, or Memoto recording while you are in a private space such as a “public” washroom provides all sorts of nightmare scenarios. The camera is looking outward, not at you.
Consider the following simple scenario. A male goes to the toilet. As he goes about his business he does not look down while wearing a digital camera but he looks straight ahead. This is selective recording, in a way, a type of censorship. Even worse, while the male goes to wash his hands, he takes a look into the mirror, and the reflection records someone else going to the toilet with their crown jewels in full view.
Imagine now very different contexts. What happens when someone is disciplining their child about an incident — are they recording the wrongdoings of the child as they try to make them understand why their actions were inappropriate?
What happens when people are having an argument, and things that should never be uttered come into the fore disclosing very personal details or behavior that was irrational in speech and captured on Glass or triggering other command-based actions automatically? The list goes on and on. Surely the camera MUST be turned off.
Those who believe that they will remember to turn off the camera, or will not be tempted to keep the camera “rolling”, or will “delete” the data gathered at a later date, are only kidding themselves. We can hardly delete our email records, let alone the thousands of pictures or images we take each day.
The recording of sensitive data might also increase criminality rather than reduce it.
The power to exclude, delete or misrepresent an event is with the wearer and not the passive passer-by. There is an asymmetry here that cannot be rectified, unless the passive participant becomes an active wearer themselves. And this is not only unfeasible, but I would argue undesirable. At what point do we say then enough is enough?
We are challenging fundamental human rights through the adoption of new technologies, which are enslaving us to a paradigm of instantaneous reality-TV style living. We are seduced into providing ever more of our personal selves without any concerns for the protection of our personal data.
Who owns the data emanating from these devices, if the information is stored somewhere other than the device itself? Does that mean I lose my capacity to own my own set of histories relating to my physiological characteristics as they are sold on to third party suppliers?
Who will return my sense of self, after I have given it away to someone else? How do I ensure that I do not bring to myself those age-old computer problems that have plagued us already — the endless need for upgrades, the endless need for customer service call-backs, and that blue screen of death?
We need to face up to these real and proportional matters because they not only have lawful implications, but implications for our humanity.
Citation: Katina Michael, "For Now We See Through a Glass, Darkly", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 32, Issue: 4, winter 2013, pp. 4 - 5, Date of Publication: 06 December 2013, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2013.2286423