A man was assaulted and thrown out of a McDonald's in Paris because of a Google-Glass-like device attached to his skull.
With Google’s new Glass making huge waves among developers and consumers, it might be a good time to consider some possible downsides to the technology that might not be immediately apparent as you fork over $1,500 for a prototype. For instance, employees of McDonald’s in France might try and strip it off of your head while you try and enjoy the food you just purchased.
Professor Steve Mann of the University of Toronto wrote an extensive blog post that reveals an unexpected collision of privacy, culture, and the future of personal technology; while visiting Paris, Mann alleges that employees of the McDonald’s he went to assaulted him and tried to physically and aggressively remove a wearable computer eyepiece called the EyeTap, similar to the Google Glass, though developed by Mann and worn by him in various iterations for over 13 years. Like Google’s augmented reality device, the EyeTap displays information in Mann’s field of view as well as operating as a camera. Unlike Google’s device, however, the device is “permanently attached” to Mann and cannot be removed from his skull “without special tools.”
Mann says that while he and his family were sitting by a window and eating, a McDonald’s employee pulled at the device, damaged it, and brusquely pushed him out of the restaurant after tearing up a doctor’s note explaining his medical need to wear it.
While Mann doesn’t explain in his post exactly what medical condition requires him to wear the device, he also doesn’t explain exactly why the McDonald’s staff had such a hostile reaction to the EyeTap. He implies in the post that the employees may have objected to him using what they saw as a recording device, pointing to a story of another American who claimed to have been manhandled by Parisian McDonald’s employees after taking a picture of the menu and forced to erase the picture. Mann has yet to respond to questions about his experience.
A spokesperson for McDonald’s said that the company takes “the claims and feedback of our customers very seriously. We are in the process of gathering information about this situation and we ask for patience until all of the facts are known.” If the employees’ goal was to prevent surveillance in their restaurant, then they failed. Mann’s eyepiece took several photos which show his alleged assailants faces and ID badges, though the versions posted on his blog have been obscured, labeling them instead as Perpetrators 1, 2 and 3. Mann says that normally the device does not record his vision, though if “the computer is damaged, e.g. by falling and hitting the ground (or by a physical assault), buffered pictures for processing remain in its memory, and are not overwritten with new ones by the then non-functioning computer vision.” Therefore, “Perpetrator 1’s actions” caused images to be captured that would not otherwise have been, meaning that he caused himself and others within the restaurant to be photographed by damaging the Eye Glass. If this account holds true, McDonald’s owes Mann a huge apology. The internet community has already pulled out their proverbial torches and pitchforks over the story; by early Monday evening, users had posted the personal phone numbers and email addresses of McDonald’s CEO David Thompson and other major executives within the company, though these were later deleted. A boycott of the company has also been called for.
Setting aside the actions of perhaps a group of allegedly violent luddites, the story still raises some very tough questions about ubiquitous surveillance, wearable technology and even cybernetic enhancement. After all, Mann’s device allows any user to record their experience with almost no indication to those being recorded that they are on camera, much like Google’s Glass. Despite his allegations that the device only took images of the employees because it was damaged, Mann’s work on the device in the past has emphasized its potential for live broadcasting of what it sees over the internet and “sousvelliance,” or the ability for individuals to record authority figures rather than being recorded. In one essay, he even used the term “cyborglog” to describe recording all of a person’s experiences with a wearable computer, and that devices like this would be to the individual what a “black box” flight recorded is to airplanes.
This also isn’t the first time Mann has had a run-in with authorities over his personal technology. According to Wired, he was removed from a Wal-Mart and has had conflicts with the New York City police and the Secret Service. He even missed the premiere of a film about him at the SXSW Festival in 2002 because airport security refused to allow him to board a plane with his gadgets.
With the Google Glass and possible competeing products form Apple and Olympus, a persistent and pervasive surveillance state could become inevitable as governments and corporations track and subpoena data gathered by the devices for various purposes. On the other hand, authorities will be under surveillance just as much as the general populace, meaning that technology like this might be a huge force for the protection of individual freedoms and liberties. However, unless you enjoy being thrown out of restaurants and banned from government buildings, don’t bolt your fancy new device to your head.