Smile, you're on Google Glass, whether you like it or not

Data collection and user privacy will never be the same

A cafe in Seattle took the unusual step this week of banning from its establishment a product that hasn't even shipped yet. The 5 Point Cafe warns on its website: "[I]f you're one of the few who are planning on going out and spending your savings on Google Glasses... plan on removing them before you enter The 5 Point. The 5 Point is a No Google Glass zone."

Though privacy advocates may have cheered this development, the online reaction to the ban has thus far been overwhelmingly negative among Facebook commenters on the 5 Point's home page. Ax Fleming says, "If I am in public I expect everyone will see me so who cares about Google Glasses. You guys are paranoid hombres." M Ursula Herrmann echoes, "Seriously? Technophobes." Brett Kokinadis adds, "Being that Seattle has a lot of Google employees and hi-tech workers this is just bad business."

Debate over this new Google technology seems more focused on whether the glasses will look cool enough for consumers to be caught wearing them, rather than about the privacy implications for all the data they will capture -- in the same week Google admitted its Street View vans had slurped up 600GB of user data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks and reached an agreement with 38 state attorneys general to pay a fine of $7 million. As Robert X. Cringely observes in "If Google were a hacker, it'd be going to prison," that works out to roughly 74 minutes' worth of revenue to the $50 billion company, or about 11 cents per megabyte hoovered. It seems consumers aren't the only ones undervaluing the worth of personal data.

As part of that settlement, Google agreed to provide a training program to its employees about privacy and the confidentiality of user data. It will also launch a public-service advertising campaign to educate consumers about keeping their personal information secure. Neither may matter if/when Google Glass -- essentially Street View on steroids -- catches on. Why bother sending out Google vans when you can enlist consumers to collect the data for you?

Mark Hurst has an excellent post on Creative Good's website about the Google Glass feature no one is talking about. Hurst writes, "Anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google's cloud and stored there for the rest of your life. You won't know if you're being recorded or not; and even if you do, you'll have no way to stop it. And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about."

For a look at the various ways Google is tracking you, check out the video below courtesy of "Hungry Beast," from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

But the privacy wars are in no way limited to the company that vows to "do no evil." Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and numerous others have all been caught vacuuming up users' data, and events this week involving Google were just the latest example of a data collection arms race sweeping through Silicon Valley and beyond. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted instructions for how to opt out of receiving Facebook ads based on your shopping activities, but a whole lot more data is being collected on you.

If you are somehow ignorant or skeptical about the scope of that accumulation, it's time to educate yourself, as there are at present few U.S. laws preventing companies from amassing and selling all manner of personal information. The Pro Publica Journalism in the Public Good website lays bare the extent of consumer data collection, which starts with basics like names, addresses, and contact information, then adds demographics like age, race, occupation, and education level.

That's for starters. Did you recently get married, buy a house, have a baby, send a kid to college, and/or get divorced? Data companies know about it and will sell that info, profiting on the details of your personal life. They also collect data about your hobbies, purchases, and charitable donations. A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax collects detailed salary and pay stub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans.

The government is also in the information commerce business: Your state's Department of Motor Vehicles may sell information, such as the type of vehicle you own, to data companies. Public voting records, which include information about your party registration and how often you vote, can also be bought and sold for commercial purposes in some states.

The real kicker about this vacuuming up of all your personal data? It's virtually impossible to find out exactly what these data companies know about you. As Pro Publica points out, "You have the right to review and correct your credit report. But with marketing data, there's often no way to know exactly what information is attached to your name -- or whether it's accurate."

Last week Galen Gruman proposed that maybe, just maybe, users can win the privacy war. Educating consumers on the ways that companies are profiting from their data is a starting point.

I urge lawmakers to require any company that uses your personal data to provide an annual summary of how much money it made from your information. If people knew how much was made off their data, they'd demand change -- or at least a cut of the proceeds (a few startups are trying to create a service around the very concept). These companies track a lot about you, so they can easily track what they sell that value for as well.

Europe has long-standing data protection laws that limit some practices that are standard in the United States. As Reuters reports, "the European Union is now weighing updated rules that would allow any resident to ask companies to delete the information on file about them; the United States only has equivalent rights for those under age 13."

As Gruman notes, the American government is starting to wake up to the issue and take action. But he warns that "Congress is again considering the fatally flawed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) bill that would allow rampant sharing of personal data across companies in the name of security. Security fears are often used to scare people into giving up rights they shouldn't" -- that and the desire to snatch up the latest gizmo from Google without thought for the consequences for privacy.

This article, "Smile, you're on Google Glass, whether you like it or not," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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