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Should Snapchat Spectacles make us worry about privacy?

Through a glass smartly

Can Snapchat’s video-recording sunglasses sidestep recurring worries about surreptitious photography?

Can Snapchat’s video-recording sunglasses sidestep recurring worries about surreptitious photography?

Tom Standage | April/May 2017

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I’ve just got my hands on the world’s most sought-after gadget: a pair of high-tech glasses that double as a wearable camera. A simple tap on the frame allows me to capture what I’m seeing from a first-person perspective and share it instantly with my friends on social media. I’m living in the future! This is great, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

The gadget on my nose is called Spectacles, made by Snap, the company behind Snapchat, an app chiefly used by teenagers to send each other disappearing picture messages. There’s some scepticism about Snap’s new venture after the failure of Google Glass. Launched in 2012, Glass was a wearable computer that could beam information into the corner of your eye, and had a built-in camera that could capture whatever you saw. Yet when early-adopting geeks got their hands on Glass, the backlash was brutal. Glass-wearers were banned from cinemas and casinos, and on several occasions abused by people worried that they were being spied on. (Glass didn’t record constantly, but people didn’t know that.)

Here was a gadget that encapsulated everything that people hated about the arrogant, surveillance-loving, privacy-invading technology industry. People flaunting it in public were quickly dubbed “Glassholes”. The criticism – coupled with the not-insignificant drawback that Glass didn’t actually do anything useful – prompted Google to kill the project off quietly in 2015.

This reaction might, in retrospect, have been foreseen, because worries about surrep­titious public photography are hardly unprecedented. In 1884, an article in the New York Times, under the headline “The Camera Epidemic”, declared newly invented snapshot cameras to be “a national scourge”. In an editorial, the Chicago Tribune dubbed photographers “Camera Fiends”, declaring “something must be done” and calling for legislation to restrain public photography. Laws against “Kodaking” were also proposed in Britain, and one was actually passed in Germany.

And now here we are again. Spectacles are a set of sunglasses with a built-in camera that can record video in ten-second bursts, for sharing through Snapchat. They are sold through pop-up vending machines that appear unannounced around America for a couple of days at a time. Will Spectacles be able to avoid the kind of backlash triggered by Glassholes and Camera Fiends?

Having played with them for a few days, I think they might. For one thing, Spectacles fit in with an existing pattern of usage among Snapchat devotees, which is to snap pictures and videos (at the moment, with smartphones) and share them with friends. Snapchat, selfie-sticks and smartphones have made public photography more acceptable; Spectacles make an existing habit easier. Secondly, they are aimed at ordinary users, not celebrities or techies. The vending machines sell Spectacles for $129; Glass cost $1,500. So they may be able to avoid connotations of tech-industry elitism.

Thirdly, Spectacles are very distinctive: they have bold, colourful frames and a light on the front shows when they are recording. And, being sunglasses, they discourage indoor use in a way Glass did not. They come across as cool and playful rather than sneaky and nerdy. Finally, Spectacles encourage sharing. Pairing them with a phone is so simple that they can easily be passed around among friends. Crucially, users can only download their own videos from the shared headset. As with its disappearing-message service, Snap has thought about privacy carefully.

This is key. A decade ago teenagers sharing everything online were widely believed to be sowing trouble for their future selves by providing a permanent online record of their youthful indiscretions. But these days they seem to prefer the ephemeral messaging of Snapchat, private messaging on WhatsApp, and curated Instagram feeds; they won’t be seen dead on Facebook, which insists on their real names and never forgets anything.

The lesson of the camera scare of the 1880s is that it takes time for social norms to adjust to new technologies; the lesson of the past decade is that those norms change quickly in the age of social media, and tech firms must keep up with them. It is too early to say whether Spectacles will become a mass-market hit, but they are winning rave reviews, and have so far avoided a privacy backlash. Snap seems to have learned from the past: if not from 1880, then at least from 2012.

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