Ethical Considerations of Google Glass

Google Glass is an optical head-mounted display with smartphone capabilities, designed to be worn in the same way as a pair of eyeglasses. Google released the device to the public market in May 2014 and has since been subject to controversies. Features under criticism include its ability to record for prolonged periods of time and facial recognition capabilities. In this article we will discuss the privacy issues associated with the recording function and whether they can be overruled considering the Glass’s benefits to society. We will first take a Kantian approach to the matter followed by a Utilitarian point of view.

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Kantian argument

Kantian theory focuses on the morality of actions to determine whether they are right or wrong rather than the outcome of said actions. According to Kant, every person has a moral autonomy meaning they are able to decide whether an action is morally right or wrong with their own judgment. Two categorical imperatives have to be considered to reach a decision. The first one is the universality principle, which states that in order for an action to be considered right, it must not lead to any contradictions when considered as a universal law, practiced by everyone. The second imperative is the reciprocity law in which actions must be beneficial to humanity as opposed to using people to benefit certain individuals.

Google Glass has the capability to record people without their explicit knowledge and/or consent. When recording, a red light is illuminated to indicate the status of the device however, it is not always completely obvious to those who are unfamiliar with the device.

Using a Kantian framework the following universality law can be established: “Everyone recording without the explicit consent of the subjects is allowable”

If this universality law were true for everyone then it could result in benefits to law enforcement as crimes may be recorded easily and without the knowledge of the criminals. People could also use it freely to document events in their personal lives. On the other hand, there is a high likelihood of issues arising, as people could feel like their privacy has been invaded and that could lead to feelings of anxiety and paranoia. It could damage society as individuals would become less trusting of one another and may also feel pressured to behave in a certain manner that might be unnatural or insincere if they constantly feel on edge, potentially leading to an increase in anti-social behaviours.

When users of Google Glass film people without informing them they are treating those individuals as mere means. The subjects lose their moral autonomy of making their own decision to be recorded as they are not informed they are being filmed. The current recording feature of Google Glass therefore goes against the reciprocity principle. Without knowing what the purpose of the recordings or what the user planned to do with them, it is unlikely that individuals would consent to being filmed.

Google Glass has already been banned in casinos and cinemas due to the legal implications arising as a consequence of the moral concerns discussed previously.

Utilitarian argument

Utilitarianism is the principle that the action itself isn’t morally right or wrong, it’s the consequences that need to be considered. Specifically these consequences are measured against the happiness gained or lost by individuals. An action is then determined to be morally right if it provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. To determine the ‘utilitarian equation’, total happiness gained – total happiness lost, the consequences that result in these changes in happiness must be identified.

The ability to freely record wherever and whenever you want gives a wide range of benefits; in the world of journalism and documentaries, the presence of a traditional camera could alter the behaviour of those being filmed, however having an inconspicuous camera allows for moments and scenes to be captured more naturally and therefore accurately. This provides happiness for a wide variety of people, from the journalists using Google Glass, to those who watch the content that is produced as a result.

There would also be benefits for personal recording. The ability to capture any moment or memory without having to pause and get out your smartphone or camera, as well as being able to record in first person view in extreme situations such as skydiving or mountain biking would be effortless. A more realistic experience would provide a larger gain of happiness to certain social groups.

Google Glass presents difficulties for situations like in a changing room. In such situations, recording with a traditional camera or phone would be fairly obvious and could be stopped. However with Google Glass, unless someone was aware about it, they may not realise that they were being recorded. A situation in which a person is being recorded without their knowledge wouldn’t result in any loss of happiness, after all ignorance is bliss. A loss of happiness would only occur if the recording were discovered; this would likely cause a large amount of distress but only affect a small number of people.

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Google Glass has been banned in places such as casinos and cinemas. One would be discriminated by being turned away entirely or asked to leave the device by the door, even without the intention of recording. As a result, this would lead to loss of happiness for the user. However, it would only affect a small amount of people as most users would probably not attempt to do so.

When looking at these factors in terms of ‘utilitarian equation’, the loss of happiness per person would be greater than the gain of happiness per person, however the ratio of people that would gain happiness to people that would lose happiness will be relatively large. On balance the total gain of happiness would likely outweigh the total loss of happiness.

48: Elizabeth Gow, Tunc Toprak, Jia Jin Low, James Wesencraft

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10 thoughts on “Ethical Considerations of Google Glass

  1. Really interesting article which weighs up the implications from the two different perspectives.

    Interestingly, a piece of facial recognition software has now been developed for Google Glass which is being used by children with autism. Those with autism struggle understanding emotions and facial expressions. The software is used as a learning aid to help the children search for and recognise different expressions. This therefore could bring happiness to millions of children with this condition and indeed their families as well.

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  2. The article has shown the contrasting ethical problems on Google glass in the Kantian theory and Utilitarian theory. I personally think that the Kantian argument is more convincing to me as it protected individuals’ rights and privacy and guides users to “put themselves in others’ shoes” when using, it would eliminate a lot of ethical problems in the society if everyone is doing in this same way.

    Although according to the Utilitarian argument, Google glass would enlarge the total gain of happiness in many different ways, it failed to compare the significance between the happiness gained and the loss. Google glass may bring happiness for it allows users to record in a more convenient way and with a more authentic angle; however, the magnitude of potential loss such as infringement of business privacy when confidential documents or conferences are being captured or videotaped is of a greater significance.

    Therefore, I personally think that the significance of gained and loss should be considered as one of the indicators in the Utilitarian arguments as well.

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  3. In my opinion, I think that a utilitarian approach to technology has more importance over a Kantian one. Similar arguments in the article could be made towards mobile phones, yet they have not been banned in movie theatres and casinos.

    Historically, technology has always been driven by a utilitarian point of view, as moral dilemmas towards some new device always exist. I feel as though Google Glass will undoubtedly cause some people pain or unhappiness, but I’d like to think that the vast majority of people won’t consciously use the device to harm others and just use it to their benefit instead. I’m interested in seeing what comes of it, and hope that it benefits society more than it damages it.

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  4. In my opinion, I think that a utilitarian approach to technology has more importance over a Kantian one. Similar arguments in the article could be made towards mobile phones, yet they have not been banned in movie theatres and casinos.

    Historically, technology has always been driven by a utilitarian point of view, as moral dilemmas towards some new device always exist. I feel as though Google Glass will undoubtedly cause some people pain or unhappiness, but I’d like to think that the vast majority of people won’t consciously use the device to harm others and just use it to their benefit instead. I’m interested in seeing what comes of it, and hope that it benefits society more than it damages it.

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  5. The Google Glass itself doesn’t seem to be the issue; you can see fairly easily that the person wearing it isn’t wearing normal glasses. I believe the real issue is not knowing whether or not it’s recording.

    Therefore banning wearing Google Glass would fix most of the problems: sure, you could still film from your pocket or a bag, but you can already do that with a phone or other camera.

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  6. Interesting points of view presented. When considering matters of personal space and privacy, I personally believe that the Kantian argument holds more weight. Even though the device has the potential to improve many lives, it has just as much potential to ruin them. It all depends on the ethics of the person using the Google glass. This is the same as many other brilliant pieces of technology that have been invented in human history. The usability of the Google Glass depends on how the opinion of the general public on privacy and personal space evolve in the coming decades.

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  7. I believe that the utilitarian approach in this ethical debate regarding holds more substance when discussing such technology. We now all live in a society where we are all being watched; whether we are tracked from online accounts or caught on CCTV cameras. Thus, I feel that the privacy argument is somewhat irrelevant, with no-one being able to state they live a completely private; many of us have our private information accessible through electronic trails. I think that Google Glass will actually be highly beneficial for its users, highlighting our progression in technological advances over recent years.

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  8. I appreciated this article, especially the discussion on the utilitarian approach to Google Glass as a technology. I do wonder however whether there is any way of assessing the quality of the gain or loss caused. For example is the gain purely for entertainment with no ‘serious’ results or is it being used for a utility purpose where the gain goes beyond personal enjoyment? I feel like factoring this in could have quite an effect on the result of the analysis, though I’d be interested to see which way!

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  9. I personally think that Utilitarianism outweigh much more than the Kantian argument if it is said to be for the societal benefits. It might even create more street harassment as the others are not being consent beforehand. Or some respected private equity firms might feel offended to be recorded on its private facilities, especially on business priorities. Conversely, the notion of privacy might alter in the future. The acceptance of being seen and recorded might be increased as people might be feeling comfortable to share what they are doing since they are in public spaces, like the Internet.

    It is also highly doubted that such high-tech device could be affordable at the consumer level.

    Despite of these criticisms, I personally think that the device should be a fine gadget to ease our life.

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