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Next-gen Smart Glasses Are a Test of Privacy as a Social Value

I am currently reading Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security By Daniel J. Solove, published in 2011. In chapter 5, Solove argues that privacy is not merely an individual right, but a social value.

We can use Meta's recently-announced second generation set of smart glasses, with their clear potential to shake up societal norms about privacy, to test Solove's arguments.

"Privacy has a social value"

Solove's book was published over ten years ago and addresses issues in the US, but the way he picks apart fallacies in arguments against privacy, and builds arguments for privacy, is incisive and persuasive. If you can look beyond the focus on the US, his book is relevant today.

In chapter five, titled "Why Privacy Isn’t Merely an Individual Right", Solove argues that the oft-cited idea of privacy as an individual right may not be the strongest case for privacy. In matters of security or national emergency, we can see how weak the rights of the individual are.

To quote Solove (my own emphasis):

As the legal theorist Robert Post has argued, privacy is not merely a set of restraints on society’s rules and norms. Instead, privacy constitutes a society’s attempt to promote civility. Society protects privacy as a means of enforcing order in the community. Privacy isn’t the trumpeting of the individual against society’s interests but the protection of the individual based on society’s own norms and values. Privacy isn’t simply a way to extricate individuals from social control; it is itself a form of social control that emerges from a society’s norms. It is not an external restraint on society but an internal dimension of society. Therefore, privacy has a social value. When the law protects the individual, it does so not just for the individual’s sake but for the sake of society. Privacy thus shouldn’t be weighed as an individual right against the greater social good. Privacy issues involve balancing societal interests on both sides of the scale.

This is a different take on the balance between individual privacy and security. Solove, citing Post, argues that privacy is here because it is a fundamental societal norm, like freedom. As with freedom, if the state takes away too much privacy in order to ensure security, one might ask what remains of the thing you're trying to protect in the first place.

AI smart glasses are here

Meta's announcement of their second generation of smart glasses (now called 'Ray-Ban | Meta Smart Glasses') caught my attention last week. While they represent everything I want to hate, I admit that I came away from watching the video impressed.

This product might be a hit. The 299 price barrier has proven successful in the past with mass sales of gaming consoles. People will pay that amount if they feel the product will deliver on entertainment value.

There are a number of improvements over the first generation of Meta's glasses, including better sound/less audio leakage, five hidden microphones, longer battery life, better camera quality and ratio, and a classy-looking case with up to eight (!) charges lasting six hours each. You can control your audio and execute tasks by tapping or using voice commands.

What's new, however – and the reason I think this product will take off – is that wearers of Meta's smart glasses (surely, 'Ray-Ban' will be dropped in regular discourse) will be able to live stream video and audio to Facebook and Instagram.

Additionally, and what Zuckerberg himself called "the most interesting thing" in his presentation, is that these glasses will integrate Meta's AI.

It seems like the AI integration will probably work best through audio. The glasses don't overlay visuals, and you would need to take out your smartphone to look at anything text-based, thereby defeating the point of wearing glasses in the first place. AI will be in beta and only available to buyers in the US for now.

The problem

Needless to say, the combination of recording, live streaming and AI integration presents a privacy nightmare. If this product is a success, there will be hidden cameras and microphones everywhere, recording data.

Meta tries to pre-empt concerns by focusing on convenience:

Instead of keeping the world at arm’s length (or worse, missing out on the action completely as you struggle with your smartphone’s lock screen), Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses let you snap a photo or video clip from your unique point of view—allowing you to not only relive the moment, but really live in the moment, too. (meta.com)

and by adding this small paragraph, right at the end of their post:

Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses are built with privacy at their core. The Meta View App gives you easy access to privacy settings where you can manage your information and choose whether to share your additional data with Meta to improve the app and glasses. We’ve also made the blinking privacy LED on the outside of the glasses bigger and more noticeable, so people know when someone is capturing photos or video or livestreaming from the glasses. (meta.com)

The claim that an unobtrusive pair of live-streaming glasses that integrate AI have 'privacy at their core' is ludicrous. Secondly, Meta seems to focus on the privacy of the wearer of the glasses first, addressing the privacy infringements on the people being filmed as an afterthought ('We've also...').

The blinking LED indicates someone is filming, and filming supposedly stops when the light is covered, but this is all backwards. If I happen to notice I'm being filmed, is it now my responsibility to engage in an uncomfortable confrontation with the wearer of the glasses? What if I miss the blinking light, or what if someone has modified their pair of glasses so they can film without a visual indicator? How will this footage of me be stored, and can it be linked to my identity and footage filmed by others? In what ways can this information be used by Meta to further develop its AI tool? How freely can this information be sold to third parties or shared with governments?

Changing societal norms

I began this piece with Solove's case for privacy as a social value, rather than 'just' an individual right.

Social values are not only embedded in law; they reveal themselves and are constantly reinforced through our daily interactions with others. I cannot just physically restrain someone and not expect a strong reaction against my behaviour, because we all share an understanding of the value of personal freedom, and we live by it.

A few years ago, I attended a music festival where an individual was caught filming inside the busy men's toilets with his smartphone. He was quickly and forcibly removed by the staff, and barred entry to the festival. By visibly filming in a public toilet, he had crossed a threshold regarding the other visitors' rights to privacy. This scenario was a clear-cut case, because it happened in a toilet. But I wonder: will the response still be the same in a society where continuous hands-free filming has become normal?

Norms can shift slowly and in small, hardly noticeable increments. To my great chagrin, the battle against the use of speaker phones in public spaces, that began around ten years ago, is now all but lost. Travelers on public transportation, for example, have given up speaking up against these noise intrusions. Our collective values around empathy for others is shifting. Incredibly, it is becoming accepted that the experience and comfort of one passenger trumps that of all the other passengers, even though the device itself has a headphone jack and ear speaker! People are just tired of having to confront again and again, and you don't know how someone will react if you do.

I hope Solove is right. I hope that Mark Zuckerberg's next product will be such a success that it will confront all of us with the limits of our tolerance for privacy invasion in such obvious ways, that a public discussion will have to take place. But the cynic in me thinks it equally possible that our shared values about privacy might be eroded quietly, through millions of tiny lost battles on our our streets, in our homes, in our schools, because this technology will be too convenient, too attractive and too much fun.



Chapter 5 "Why Privacy Isn’t Merely an Individual Right" taken from Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security by Daniel J. Solove, Yale University Press, 2011.

The author's footnotes to the quote:

Introducing the Next-Generation Ray-Ban | Meta Smart Glasses Collection

I tried the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses — these are the biggest upgrades (Tom's Guide)

Meta Connect 2023: Everything Revealed in 10 Minutes (CNET on YouTube)

Additional Reading Smart Glasses, Dumb Etiquette? How AR Affects Social Power Balance (Neuroscience News.com)

Clearview: Glasses With Facial Recognition Are Here—And The Air Force Is Buying (Forbes)

Meta unveils stylish — yes really — Smart Glasses with freakishly advanced AI capabilities


I decided not to include this in the article, but here is another interesting quote from the same chapter:

In contrast, the philosopher John Dewey proposed an alternative theory about the relationship between individual and society. For Dewey, the good of individual and the good of society are often interrelated rather than antagonistic: “We cannot think of ourselves save as to some extent social beings. Hence we cannot separate the idea of ourselves and our own good from our idea of others and of their good.” Dewey contended that the value of protecting individual rights emerges from their contribution to society. In other words, individual rights are not trumps but are protections by society from its intrusiveness. Society makes space for the individual because of the social benefits this space provides. Therefore, Dewey argues, rights should be valued based on “the contribution they make to the welfare of the community.” Otherwise, in any kind of utilitarian calculus, individual rights wouldn’t be valuable enough to outweigh most social interests, and it would be impossible to justify individual rights. Dewey argued that we must insist upon a “social basis and social justification” for civil liberties.

The author's footnotes:

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