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The New Privacy

May 27, 2015

In October of 2012, back when iPhones were still small enough to fit in our back pockets and Google wasn't a watch company yet, an interesting project launched on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, back then bearing the name Memoto, a Lifelogging Camera. The device itself was a square-looking camera no bigger than your average wall adapter with a metal clip on the back. The camera would clip onto a shirt, jacket, or even something else entirely, like a backpack, and take pictures every 30 seconds, passively, so the user wouldn't have to give it a second thought. It came with an innocent and captivating promise, that the 30-second time lapse taken by the camera would serve as a photographic journal of sorts, when you look back at what it's recorded over an entire day, week, or a vacation. it would offer a neat recap of the event, and sometimes capture the things the user would have otherwise missed. Almost three years later, I finally got the chance to wear it and test it out myself. Yeah, it's a cool piece of technology, and it's surprisingly fun to look back at a party or a school day when it's past, but as an incarnation of a "wearable camera" concept, it also brings a host of possible concerns and questions. And I was just as interested to experiment on that front as I was to chronicle my day-to-day life in a digital photo album.

Wearable cameras are a new concept, but inconspicuous cameras aren't. And it might not be long until both are equally common and accepted in our culture.

It's been a little more than two weeks since I've first experimented with what's now called the Narrative Clip, and I've worn it off and on, mostly for special occasions and outings. The novelty wore off surprisingly quickly. I wore it straight for three full days, and then relegated the camera to be worn only for parties, bike rides, and other "unusual" events. Of course, there was the factor of "this is too much of a hassle", especially because I can't do much with two thousand pictures of me staring at a computer screen or eating. But something that played a much bigger role in my decision to wear it much less regularly is how people reacted to the idea of a wearable camera. Initially, I was surprised -- most people didn't mind too much that I was wearing a camera on my shirt. Granted, it's a tiny one, barely noticeable unless I bring it up in conversations. But people did ask about it, and most of my friends and family thought, like I did, that it was a cool idea executed pretty well. I mean, this camera gives the phrase photographic memory an entirely new level of meaning, and who wouldn't want that?

But the idea of privacy also came up often in conversations, because regardless of its innocent promise, a body camera is still technically a body camera. And like Google Glass, not knowing when or if you are being photographed, filmed, or recorded is a scary notion.

The most interesting thing I took away from wearing a camera on myself constantly was that I became increasingly mindful -- possibly to a extreme extent -- of how others were acting, how I was carrying myself, and whether or not the camera was still operating. This might sound cliché, but when I wear the camera, I still tend to look at the world through the lens of that camera, rather than my own eyeballs. And that's more than a little bit worrying.

In some ways, it's no different than carrying around a phone or a dedicated camera and taking pictures, once people are aware of it. Sure some people are camera-shy, but that's not unique to the Narrative Clip. But there were the occasional situations where I asked myself whether or not wearing a (admittedly inconspicuously designed) camera was appropriate. I didn't, for example, wear it during class, out of respect for the teacher, who probably wasn't really partial to the idea of having his or her lecture recorded permanently on camera. I also took it off when I went to the restroom or a less public place, because there obviously is a need for a certain level of privacy in these situations, even though nobody will look back at any of these pictures except me. But the most interesting thing I took away from wearing a camera on myself constantly was that I became increasingly mindful -- possibly to a extreme extent -- of how others were acting, how I was carrying myself, and whether or not the camera was still operating. This might sound cliché, but when I wear the camera, I still tend to look at the world through the lens of that camera, rather than my own eyeballs. And that's more than a little bit worrying.

Regardless of its innocent promise, a body camera is still technically a body camera. And like Google Glass, not knowing when or if you are being photographed, filmed, or recorded is a scary notion.

If we take the concerns and the occasional awkwardness or "what is that on your shirt?" out of the equation, though, I really enjoy the experience of capturing the smaller, less memorable moments of the day-to-day life. In addition to taking pictures, it's also a useful insight into how much time I spend doing a certain task or being somewhere, because the camera takes pictures at a regular interval. It also acts as a photographic journal of sorts, recording everything I experienced during the day into a neatly organized set of pictures. There is definitely a solid, futuristic, and elegant benefit to the idea of a wearable camera. But security and privacy concerns, at least at the present moment, feel more immediate than any benefits.

In the process of thinking about the camera's implications for privacy, there was one thing I kept coming back to -- the idea that a "wearable camera", isn't really new. In fact, our lives right now are arguably saturated with inconspicuous cameras. A camera you have with you everywhere you go, a camera that doesn't visibly stick out, and instead blend in, a camera that allows anyone to capture any moment in a few seconds and a tap -- yes, it's the Narrative Clip camera, but it's also the cameras on our phones. Sitting at Starbucks or Chipotle, you have no guarantee that someone just didn't Snapchat a picture of you banging away at your keyboard. You have no guarantee that you're not a backdrop to someone's Skype call. And surely, there's a surveillance camera somewhere in the building for security purposes. You're being recorded anyway, even before I put on another camera as a part of my attire.

Following that logic, wearable cameras aren't really a revolutionary change that might happen sometime down the line -- it's a natural cultural adaptation to technology that is happening. I don't think there's any question that the culture will view wearable, hidden cameras as a part of life no more suspicious or curious than a smartphone camera, because with every new emerging piece of technology, we're crafting new definitions of privacy. But in 2015, I don't think we're quite there yet.