Should Google know your deepest darkest secrets?

April 15, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

With Google Glass on sale today, it's time to have serious talks about technology and privacy.

By Christian Madsbjerg


FORTUNE -- Google opens up its Explorer Program today, offering the general public an opportunity to purchase Glass for $1,500. Although spots are limited, the expansion of the Glass club has created tremendous excitement across tech blogs and Silicon Valley -- finally, the tools are readily available to record our complete existence, every moment of our lives on Earth, every face we encounter.

And what about the people on the other side of the camera? As they have no legal or political mechanism for opting out of Glass, they can either jump on the bandwagon or stay home: Our entire lives are now fair game for recording and sharing. Lest we fret too much about the prospect of full disclosure, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reminds us that privacy is no longer a "social norm." It's so last century, right?

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Other countries in Europe and Asia have recently had robust public debates about the limits of privacy, and, as a result, legislation has taken measures to address the concern, even mandating shutter-click sounds and disabling facial recognition software. Yet here in the United States, even after the NSA data-collection scandals, there have not been enough extensive ethical conversations about technology and privacy in the national media.

When we study U.S. consumers' perceptions around technology, we hear the same thing over and over again: "But who would find my photos interesting?" Most people we've spoken with over the years express a sense of apathy regarding privacy and security concerns. While many of them admit that they don't like being photographed or recorded without consent, they simply don't know what to do about it -- the rhetoric of innovation and progress that accompanies tech's invasion into our private lives makes the whole thing feel like a fait accompli.

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, we need not be concerned if our entire lives are recorded and made visible to others, because: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." By taking a moral high ground, he reduces privacy to a protection mechanism for illegal or illicit activities. Reality, of course, is far more complex than Schmidt's vision of a flat monoculture of morals. Each of us occupies a variety of social worlds with different moral codes: What might be okay in one circle isn't necessarily okay in another. Ironically, Google+, with its overlapping social circles, is entirely structured around this principle -- we all do things that we don't want our grandmothers, significant others, friends, or bosses to see. But Glass changes all that because we no longer have control over how our lives are recorded and shared online.

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And if Schmidt was being serious (rather than merely provocative), it's hard to square his perspective with the explosion of digital communication channels that explicitly deliver highly private, even anonymous, digital interactions. In our recent projects for global technology companies, we've seen firsthand how younger users especially are beginning to treat highly public platforms like Facebook (FB) as mere "online image maintenance," suitable for only the most banal and generic information.

They've turned instead to apps like Snapchat, Whisper, and Between to share more high-value and "real" content -- the inside jokes, the unscripted updates, the small gestures of "I'm thinking of you now." Much of the actual content of these digital interactions is unsuitable for public consumption, part of what makes it so valuable to users. But it's often this type of content, the slightly transgressive, experimental, unproven or strange, that's been the basis of America's vibrant culture. You could ask the question: Is a person who has nothing to hide worth knowing?

A key driver of our cultural output is our robust civil society -- the private sphere of human interactions outside of business or government that creates and nurtures new ideas. We don't need to go back far in history -- the Stasi, McCarthyism, the Salem witch trials, etc. -- to observe the disastrous cultural effects wrought by the breakdown of civil society. In all of these cases, the usurping of privacy was a key tool of the regime in control; the perception of being constantly watched created a normalizing effect, where citizens slowly internalized the surveillance and modified their behaviors to be less and less idiosyncratic.

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Maybe you're still thinking, but yes, as long as we're not doing anything illegal, overturning the state, say, what harm is there in a little exposure? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, after all. Consider another example: It is said that 40% to 76% of all marriages will be hit with infidelity at some point. Infidelities are a closely guarded but a fairly common secret. Now imagine if all instances of infidelity and flirting became public data. Imagine if Google (GOOG) made this data available to you, your friends, and the government, together with all the accompanying metadata of how you were feeling at the time and how good the motel was on a 1 to 5 scale. Does that information really want to be free?

Instead of letting the tech industry lock you into a rhetorical stronghold -- your privacy in the name of their progress -- stop for a moment. It's time to really think -- not just about what's possible, but about what's preferable. What do we really want as a society?

Christian Madsbjerg is a senior partner at ReD Associates, a strategy and innovation consulting firm based in the human sciences. He is author of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems.

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