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Wearcam Helps Address Privacy Issue

Guest column by Steve Mann

In response to Anders Hove's column ["Wearable Web Cam Goes Too Far," June 26] about my Wearcam invention, I have some clarifications to make. With respect to my having "ignored [him] at the East Campus fire a few years ago," it is ironic that he's waited until now to write about it, as I believe journalism should report up-to-the-minute happening events. The fact that I didn't hear him try to talk to me at that time is not particularly surprising as there was a great deal of noise and commotion at this event and I was concentrating on swiftness in journalism, transmitting up-to-the-minute events (images of the fire trucks) to the Internet, as I thought that The Tech might be able to use these images. As it turns out, The Tech was very glad I had captured hundreds of images of the event because they had tried desperately but unsuccessfully to get one of their photographers to cover that event.

In discussing my behavior at the East Campus fire, Hove makes the analogy to a walkman, and the concept of escapism. But my construction of the apparatus, as a personal visual assistant, is for the exact opposite: To attain a heightened sense of awareness of visual reality. Yes, it is true that I can receive broadcast television or surf the World-Wide Web inside my eyeglasses, but I seldom do. Most of the time, I'm focused on the visual information around me at the time.

Hove has completely misunderstood the nature of my experiment in equating me to someone who watches television all day, as a substitute for existence. In fact, I seldom watch broadcast television or see movies, because there is so much in reality- the sights and sounds of the real world- that is much more satisfying than movies or broadcast television.

With regard to the complaint of my apparatus being ugly, this arises from it's being an early prototype. It is now about six years old; probably the world's first wearable multimedia computer with wireless Internet connection. With current technology, some funding, and collaboration with industrial designers, I could easily build a version of the apparatus that would be completely undetectable, or that would be very fashionable, so I am not going to bother addressing the fashion-related issues that Hove raises.

Hove is correct in noting that I wear the apparatus to raise privacy issues, and it appears that he took the time to take a careful look at my Web page (http://wearcam.org). The privacy issues he points to are quite valid; indeed, my goal as part scientist, part engineer, and part artist, is to raise people's awareness of the social issues that we will face in the future world of ubiquitous connectivity. However, Hove points out that it is easy to avoid being captured on traditional cameras. This is simply not true. Many of the surveillance cameras are very well hidden. Today, you can buy everyday objects such as smoke detectors, exit signs, stuffed animals, and the like, that have hidden cameras already built in. In the United Kingdom, the government routinely installs cameras on lamp posts throughout the city to keep watch over citizens' activities. And here in the United States, in Baltimore, the government is installing 200 video cameras throughout the city to do a similar experiment on citizens without their consent. If Hove really wants to do something for privacy, perhaps he could do something constructive like work toward abolishing the MIT Card or getting rid of some of the video surveillance cameras that seem to be proliferating around campus.

I do, in fact, exercise deference to others. If you look at my images, you will see that many are architectural details, experiments in light and shade, posed shots done at the request of those in the picture, or that there is some other socially redeeming quality in each of the pictures. For example, investigative journalism such as images of department store security guards explaining to me that their ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity are light fixtures, even though they don't appear to be producing very much light. If there have been any errors in my judgement in this regard, I urge people to send me e-mail containing the specific URL of the image in question. Hundreds of images remain in the archives for some time.

I recently had dinner with David Brin, a science fiction writer who predicts a future in which many people wear cameras with realtime online connectivity. Brin said, "consider two cities, A and B. In city A, there are ubiquitous police-owned cameras. People are protected from their neighbors spying on them, but curious law enforcement officials can look in on anyone at any time. In city B, cameras are more evenly distributed in public places, and anyone can access the output of any camera. Which city would you prefer to live in?"

In some sense, Wearcam belongs to city B- the images are accessible to anyone. A camera whose output is only accessible to a select few has far greater potential for evil. The very fact that my invention has provoked thoughtful discussion, that it has been brought to light, is in support of Brin's desire for open scholarly debate; something that doesn't seem to be happening with respect to the many surveillance cameras - many well-hidden - currently on campus.