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.
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.
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.
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