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Monday, May 27, 2013

Disruptions: At Odds Over Privacy Challenges of Wearable Computing

Perhaps the best way to predict how society will react to so-called wearable computing devices is to read the Dr. Seuss children's story “The Butter Battle Book.”

The book, which was published in 1984, is about two cultures at odds. On one side are the Zooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side down. In opposition are the Yooks, who eat their bread with the buttered side up. As the story progresses, their different views lead to an arms race and potentially an all-out war.

Well, the Zooks and the Yooks may have nothing on wearable computing fans, who are starting to sport devices that can record everything going on around them with a wink or subtle click, and the people who promise to confront violently anyone wearing one of these devices.

I've experienced both sides of this debate with Google's Internet-connected glasses, Google Glass. Last year, after Google unveiled its wearable computer, I had a brief opportunity to test it and was awe-struck by the potential of this technology.

A few months later, at a work-related party, I saw several people wearing Glass, their cameras hovering above their eyes as we talked. I was startled by how much Glass invades people's privacy, leaving them two choices: stare at a camera that is constantly staring back at them, or leave the room.

This is not just a Google issue. Other gadgets have plenty of privacy-invading potential. Memoto, a tiny, automatic camera that looks like a pin you can wear on a shirt, can snap two photos a minute and later upload it to an online service. The makers of the device boast that it comes with one year of free storage and call it “a searchable and shareable photographic memory.”

Apple is also working on wearable computing products, filing numerous patents for a “heads-up display” and camera. The company is also expected to release an iWatch later this year. And several other start-ups in Silicon Valley are building products that are designed to capture photos of people's lives.

But what about people who don't want to be recorded? Don't they get a say?

Deal with it, wearable computer advocates say. “When you're in public, you're in public. What happens in public, is the very definition of it,” said Jeff Jarvis, the author of the book “Public Parts” and a journalism professor at the City University of New York. “I don't want you telling me that I can't take pictures in public without your permission.”

Mr. Jarvis said we've been through a similar ruckus about cameras in public before, in the 1890s when Kodak cameras started to appear in parks and on city streets.

The New York Times addressed people's concerns at the time in an article in August 1899, about a group of camera users, the so-called Kodak fiends, who snapped pictures of women with their new cameras.

“About the cottage colony there is a decided rebellion against the promiscuous use of photographing machines,” The Times wrote from Newport, R.I. “Threats are being made against any one who continues to use cameras as freely.” In another article, a woman pulled a knife on a man who tried to take her picture, “demolishing” the camera before going on her way.

This all sounds a bit like the Yooks and Zooks battling over their buttered bread.

Society eventually adapted to these cameras, but not without some struggle, a few broken cameras and lots of court battles. Today we live in a world with more than a billion smartphones with built-in cameras. But, there is a difference between a cellphone and a wearable computer; the former goes in your pocket or purse, the latter hangs on your body.

“Most people are not talking about privacy here, they are talking about social appropriateness,” said Thad Starner, who is the director of the Contextual Computing Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a technical adviser to the Google Glass team. He said he believed most people are respectful and would not use their wearable computers inappropriately.

Mr. Starner has been experimenting with different types of wearable computers for over 20 years, and he said that although some people are initially skeptical of the computer above his eye, they soon feel comfortable around the device, and him. “Within two weeks people start to ignore it,” he said. Over the years, his wearable computers have become less obtrusive, going from bulky, very visible contraptions, to today's sleeker Google Glass.

Mr. Starner said privacy protections would have to be built into these computers. “The way Glass is designed, it has a transparent display so everyone can see what you're doing.” He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

But not everyone is so thoughtful, as I learned this month at the Google I/O developer conference when people lurked around every corner, including the bathroom, wearing their glasses that could take a picture with a wink.

By the end of “The Butter Battle Book,” the arms race has escalated to a point at which both sides have developed bombs that can destroy the world. As two old men, a Yook and a Zook, debate what to do next, the story ends with one saying: “We'll just have to be patient. We'll see, we'll see.”

E-mail: bilton@nytimes.com