Boston Globe Anticipates Augmented Reality Privacy Issues

BGA few hours before I left for the airport to attend this week’s Augmented World Expo 2016, I received a call from Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray. We had a great and detailed conversation about several of the legal issues that AR-enabled smart glasses will raise, including personal injury concerns, intellectual property issues, and e-commerce regulations. It’s heartening to see that a prominent mainstream reporter has recognized the significance of this emerging device category and done some serious thinking about its implications.

I hope to read more of Mr. Bray’s thoughts on AR in future columns. The article that immediately followed our call, though, zeroed in on only two points: (1) the impressiveness of the Microsoft Hololens–which I can confirm after trying one at AWE–and (2) the privacy concerns that society will have to deal with once smart glasses become ubiquitous. (This concern is not unique, or even particularly applicable, to Hololens; as awesome as they are, no one will be walking down the street wearing them, nor would passersby be surprised to learn they contain video cameras.)

Mr. Bray’s article is interesting and worth reading in full. But I’ll throw in a few quick words to add some context to the two quotes on privacy he included from our conversation. He first quotes me as saying “privacy is going to be a major, unavoidable concern.” Second, the article has me saying that we’ll all get used to “the death of privacy” like frogs in boiling water.

The Hololens: impressive technology, but not quite evening wear yet.

The Hololens: impressive technology, but not quite evening wear yet.

I said the words attributed to me, and stand by them. But it’s important to know they were not directed at Hololens or any other specific device, but rather was part of a much longer conversations we had in response to his questions about privacy in an age where everyone is wearing video-enabled smart glasses. I also think “death of privacy” (his words, not mine) is perhaps a bit hyperbolic as applied to smart glasses, although I have written myself about how advanced AR combined with omnipresent Internet of Things sensors could literally eradicate our notions of personal privacy.

And I’m also not the first to use the frog-in-water analogy to describe society’s shifting views on what a “reasonable expectation of privacy” (the standard the law applies to determine when something is private) is. Today, we’re recorded on hundreds of hidden video cameras every time we walk into a big-box store or walk down a city street, and nearly everyone we meet carries a device capable of recording high-definition video and audio at the push of a button. A generation ago, these ideas would have been considered absurdly Orwellian. In another generation from now, when wearable (and practically invisible) recording devices and embedded IoT sensors are everywhere, our present circumstances may well seem like the idyllic good old days of personal privacy.

Again, although I felt the need to flesh out my quoted comments a bit, I applaud Mr. Bray and the Globe for taking emerging AR devices seriously. We need more of this type of conversation happening in the mainstream press.