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?
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.
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.
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.
In the last stretch of the ideas conference, presenters find creativity, explain ant colonies, and react to the NSA's defense of its intelligence program.
FORTUNE -- An experienced "TEDster," the cloying way repeat attendees of the TED conference refer to themselves, suggested to me that the best way to creative a narrative of the conference is to write down one thing from each session and see what emerges. In my judgment, MOREAdam Lashinsky, Sr. Editor at Large - Mar 21, 2014 12:16 PM ET
Also Safari, Twitter, Calendar, iBooks, FaceTime, Keynote and Software Update.
FORTUNE -- Ashkan Soltani, an independent computer security expert best known for analyzing Edward Snowden's NSA leaks for the Washington Post, has published a list of applications running Mac OS X 10.9 that he says are vulnerable to the same security hole Apple (AAPL) patched in its mobile operating system on Friday.
They include apps used by millions of Mac users every day: MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Feb 24, 2014 9:56 AM ET
Did U.S. government spies create the security hole that Apple patched last week?
FORTUNE -- You don't have to put on a tin hat to find the timing of the "Apple" entry in the attached Powerpoint slide suspicious, although a tin hat probably helps.
The slide, marked TOP SECRET, was one of the first documents leaked to The Guardian and the Washington Post by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden last June. It lays out MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Feb 23, 2014 9:14 AM ET
CEO talks to ABC about what he can and can't say about Apple and the NSA.
FORTUNE -- Tim Cook got serious at the 2:20 mark in the attached 4-minute YouTube video.
ABC News' David Muir had finally stopped peppering Apple's (AAPL) CEO with questions about the company's next big thing and brought the subject around to the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program.
A top-secret powerpoint slide leaked last June suggested that an NSA program MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Jan 25, 2014 6:54 AM ET
An iPhone backdoor was just one of 50 items in the NSA's catalog of covert cyber tricks.
FORTUNE -- If it weren't for the Apple (AAPL) angle, I'm not sure I would have watched the entire YouTube video Jacob Appelbaum posted Monday of his hour-long lecture at a hackers conference in Hamburg last weekend.
I'm glad I did, although I'm still not sure what to make of it.
Applebaum is a private security MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Dec 31, 2013 5:23 PM ET
It was a bad year for the National Security Agency thanks to Edward Snowden.
By Catherine Dunn
FORTUNE -- 2013 will be remembered as the year Edward Snowden changed everything we know about the scope of U.S. surveillance practices. The former National Security Agency contractor leaked classified documents to The Guardian and the Washington Post before fleeing the country first for Hong Kong and then Russia.
By now the revelations MOREDec 27, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Singapore makes the most device requests per capita, the U.S leads in account requests.
FORTUNE -- Google (GOOG) may be complaining the loudest (and in the foulest language) about the National Security Agency's domestic spying activities, but it's Apple (AAPL) that provided the most data -- in the form of two large and surprisingly revealing spreadsheets (see below).
One shows the number of device information requests made to Apple by police around MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Nov 7, 2013 6:49 AM ET
The first quantum key distribution network in the United States promises un-hackable data security.
By Clay Dillow
FORTUNE -- As revelations about the depth and breadth of the NSA's digital eavesdropping program continue to come to light, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute is rolling out a new kind of network encryption designed to be virtually un-hackable -- not only now, but in the future. The non-profit research and development contractor has installed MOREOct 14, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Apple's CEO paid a visit to the White House Thursday. Stop the presses.
FORTUNE -- According to a report in Politico, Google (GOOG) vice president Vint Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP protocol that is the foundation of the Internet, attended a closed-door briefing with President Obama Thursday to talk about U.S. government surveillance.
So did Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T (T), as well as representatives of groups like Public Knowledge and the Center MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Aug 9, 2013 6:59 AM ET
|Many low-wage workers not protected by minimum wage|
|HBO shows coming to Amazon ... not Netflix|
|Students cry foul over athletes unionizing|
|Postal workers to protest at Staples|
|Thanks to Obamacare, more workers may quit their jobs|