Eavesdropper: A view to a kill

By: |
September 21, 2020 2:20 AM

Facebook's panoptic vision is a dangerous, yet exciting notion; success of Project Aria will depend on how much control people want to give to Facebook

While only a few of Facebook's employees will wear the product initially, the company has plans to extend its reach over time.

Earlier if I were to imagine a place, I would shut my eyes and think about the scenery, the noises and the smell, and how I felt standing there at that moment. Then a few years ago, Google changed all that. I was no longer required to close my eyes, all I had to do was open Google maps, and I could find myself standing at the corner of the street or in front of that shop. The experience is not as immersive as closing my eyes. But give it a few years, and with the right kind of virtual reality headsets, I have no doubt Google will get us there.

But Google has its limitations. How the company has achieved this is by fitting cars with cameras and asking them to go around the city. Many countries have allowed Google to deploy these camera-fitted cars, but some like India have placed restrictions on Google. It is easier to roam the streets of Washington than to traverse the lanes of Varanasi.

Facebook’s gamble
However, Facebook now has a more grandiose vision. Something many governments may not be able to object to. And, the idea is not to capture the streets, but buildings, houses and every other thing. The company, earlier, this month announced something called Project Aria, Facebook’s AR glasses, which will record the world around you and relay it back to the company in real-time to help it create 3D images and populate its software with more information.

Tomorrow, if the glasses are pointed to a Cezanne, they can recognise it. While only a few of Facebook’s employees will wear the product initially, the company has plans to extend its reach over time.

In the video available on the project’s website, Facebook presents a demonstration of the technology being used to find car keys, identify objects, recognise places, convey stop signs. So, the plans do go beyond just recording and observing. Besides, it would be a shame not to use augmented reality for this purpose, if others are doing the same.
Then there is Mark Zuckerberg’s interview to famous YouTube personality Marques Brownlee. In the interview, Zuckerberg’s vision is to create a device that is the extension of a human being.

He wants people to experience an alternate reality beyond what they get on a watch. So, Facebook is not trying to strap a watch on people’s face. And, given that the company has been pouring in billions in its AR/VR acquisition, it would be foolish not to capitalise on it in the coming years. The company spent $3 billion to acquire virtual-reality leader Oculus in 2014, last year it bought CTRL-Labs in September and Beat Games in November. Earlier this year, Facebook invested $40 million in Scape Technologies, a UK based AR company that specialises in creating 3D maps.

So, Facebook is well on the path of making VR and AR a money-making machine, and it has the database and tools for it.

But this begs the question why would Facebook succeed, where others have failed? While Google was trying to pioneer the AR revolution, the company was way ahead of its time. It introduced the prototype in 2012 when knowledge about VR/AR was limited, and most countries and businesses were still in the phase of rapid digitalisation. Most countries at the time were doing the same.

Over the last few years, prices of products have come down. And, $1,000 devices have become within reach of many consumers. Besides, most countries are on the path of 5G adoption. Gaming has taken off in a big way, and people are using technology more often to save costs. Pandemic has accelerated the process. Even movies have become futuristic to sell the right vision. Remember Mission Impossible and the smart-contact lenses.

However, there are counter-acting forces that Facebook will have to consider if its Aria is to become a reality. Data is the first hurdle. Google’s innovation did earn it the awe of many, but also led to the derision of people using these glasses. Given how Facebook’s increasingly being perceived as big bad tech, it would not be surprising if Project Aria receives similar criticism. Second, and most important, governments and people’s perception of data has changed.

Earlier, governments were reticent about data privacy and data rights; now, they are increasingly trying to regulate it. With whistleblowers revealing trade secrets of the likes of Facebook-watch Social Dilemma on Netflix-the situation hasn’t been any better. Even supporters of social media have started to point out its failings and started to see it as a threat.

Aria’s vision
Things will get clearer as more details emerge of how Facebook plans to use the technology, but for now, the video lays out a limited vision of Facebook’s approach. The company wants to create a record of everything possible to 3D map the world. Those wearing the glasses will see and record everything, and Facebook will then categorise objects. The company claims that it will blur identifiers–faces and licence plates-Facebook will still have access to the data. Besides, what’s to say there would not be any change in its terms and conditions.

Indeed, Facebook presently does have this data, but it cannot track people using the information. Unless they use its app or its services or post information. However, the glasses allow Facebook to gauge and understand the world in real-time. More important, Facebook can track consumer preferences in real-time, something that has been impossible throughout the history of capitalism.

Facebook will know what you are fixated on and prioritise advertisements based on that. It will also be able to monitor your daily activity and direct companies on how best to target you. If that isn’t scary enough, imagine Facebook learning from your life and people’s life every day and knowing you better each time. The consumer is king, and also a lab rat.

And, this creates data privacy concerns. Even if the data is anonymised and sold, Facebook will still have control over people’s preferences and social behaviour. What’s to say, Russia or any other country would not influence elections or popular opinion.

Illusion of control
But that does not mean Facebook is doomed. The only way Facebook can implement its vision is if it shares gains from its earnings with the people. There is a price to data, and Facebook hasn’t renumerated anyone but itself. Two, it needs to open itself to more regulation and start sharing some gains with the government. While the idea of Facebook selling anonymised data is not bad, but it needs to cede space in certain profit areas which border on unethical. The platform cannot allow its algorithms to be manipulated.

And, more important, people should have the option to opt-out. Besides, there is another concern for creating a big brother state. Will Facebook share data with police authorities, if it does, then the glasses will mean the suppression of dissent and tracking of detractors. No one should have that power.

Don’t be surprised if in the future you enter a place, and the sign says. Leave your glasses, phone and Facebook, outside the premises.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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