What Google Clips means for privacy and constant surveillance

Colin Daileda

Google Clips is either the camera that parents and pet owners have waited all their lives for, or the next step in a world in which we spend a growing chunk of our lives being recorded. 

Maybe it's both. 

SEE ALSO: Google Clips was the big surprise of the Pixel event

The wallet-size Clips camera is designed to capture moments you normally wouldn't be able to if you had to rush off to find your camera while something cute was happening in front of you.

Set one on a table or a shelf, turn it on, and the camera's artificial intelligence will begin to learn its surroundings. It'll figure out what faces are important to you — your kids, your dog, your cat — and learn to take short video clips when those faces do things worthy of a picture. 

The Clips camera records snippets of video and allow users to look at the footage and choose any frame to turn into a photo. Over time, users will end up with a trove of photos of intimate moments that would have otherwise passed unrecorded into the ether. 

But in a world where everything is always getting hacked and digital photos are used to blackmail unsuspecting victims, the privacy concerns aren't hard to come up with. Who has access to the photos? How do we know when the camera is recording? What will Google learn about me through this device?

Juston Payne — the guy in the tweet up there and also a product manager at Google who introduced Clips to the world on Wednesday — said conversations around this device's relationship to privacy were among the "deepest" the product team had as they built them. And, according to Payne as well as technology and privacy experts, Google was pretty thorough. 

The Clips camera stores photos only on the device. They don't go to the cloud, and they don't even get to your phone until you want them to. The devices are bright white in the front and teal in the back, and a light is always on when it's ready to capture photos. The camera doesn't pick up audio, and it doesn't continuously capture video. Google says the Clips cameras do their job well when their focus area of about three-eight feet in front of them, but otherwise not so much, which means the devices aren't likely to become an inadvertent stalking tool.

“The really big investment we made on this is... all of the processing is on the device," Payne said. "It means the user is in total control of your data."

That control will no doubt be reassuring to many who buy or otherwise run into Google Clips. Even experts such as David Gray — a law professor at the University of Maryland and a surveillance expert — agreed that Google seems to have built important privacy protections into these cameras. But Gray and others remain wary that Clips is "the kind of device that makes us more comfortable, more accustomed to the idea of constant surveillance."

Gray likes to survey his undergrad students about how OK they are with different types of surveillance, and he said he's "shocked" at how apathetic students are with the idea that they're often being watched. When he talks about privacy and surveillance to older groups of people, he says the audience is often "jumping out of their chairs" in disbelief about how much data the government or a company can to mine about them in one way or another. 

"I do think there is a demonstrable effect on expectations of privacy — in terms of insulation from surveillance — that is just disappearing as the consequence of the development and deployment of these devices," he said.

Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who's written on privacy and surveillance, wondered what the next round of Google Clip-like devices would do. Even if Google doesn't build them, will a competing company do the same thing but with the ability to record audio? How about zoom or night vision? CCTV cameras, he said, started out without those capabilities, but now they have both. If/when such devices come out, will we already be used to them because of devices such as Google Clips? 

Maybe not. Maybe Clips won't usher in a new wave of small cameras and audio recorders into our homes. Jay Stanely, an ACLU policy analyst with the organization's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, doesn't believe Google Clips will cause some of the same issues Google Glass ran into, where people felt they were always being recorded. 

"The bottom line is I don't think it crosses any new lines in terms of privacy," he said. 

Others, of course, are worried that Clips doesn't have to cross any new lines to pave the way for devices that might.

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