Google Glass is the latest mobile Internet gadget to grab headlines. Resembling a pair of glasses, the futuristic device enables wearers to access the Internet — in particular Google’s search, maps and translation functions — as long as they have a Wifi or Bluetooth connection. The mini computer screen that appears in a user’s direct field of view is combined with a camera/microphone making it easy to record all the information around you.
While the idea of a pair of glasses that contain a video display, camera and microphone is not an original one, Google’s device adds Internet connectivity to the equation.
For the past year or so Google employees — most publicly cofounder Sergey Brin — have been toying with Glass, and in February the device was released for sale to a few thousand selected developers. Reports by these so-called Explorers are now proving popular on the Net, tickling the fancy of eager early-adopters.
However, the video-recording capability of Google Glass raises the possibility of serious invasions of privacy and the device has already been banned by some establishments in the United States, including a bar in Seattle and a casino in Las Vegas.
It is unknown exactly when Glass will be available in Japan but it is set for public release in the U.S. in 2014. Because the device depends heavily on voice control, it may take some time for the software to be translated from English to Japanese. Whatever the case, there are already a lot of Japanese longing for the device, and when it does arrive here one of the first things that will need sorting out is that sticky issue of privacy.
The world’s first camera-enabled cellphone appeared in Japan in 1999. Within a few years, almost all cellphones came standard with a built-in-camera and the word “sha-mail” was coined to describe taking and sending photos on a cellphone, (“sha” comes from shashin, the Japanese word for photo).
A disturbing side effect of the proliferation of cellphone cameras in Japan was the rapid rise of so-called up-skirt photography, where voyeurs would snap pictures while aiming the camera up a woman’s skirt — most often while riding the train. People were already discussing this issue on Internet bulletin boards in 2001, just two years after the first phone-camera.
As the popularity of sha-mail played an important part in the dissemination of cellphones at that time, phone carriers seemed to have been concerned about the negative image caused by illicit photos. As a result, all cellphones with built-in cameras shipped with a shutter sound that played when a photo was taken — and it could not be disabled. This was not something that was required by law, but it was taken up voluntarily by all Japanese cellphone vendors. These self-regulations have never been made publicly available, but NTT Docomo told The Japan Times that they implemented it to “prevent secret filming or other privacy issues.”
Essentially the selfmade rules are that cellphones with cameras should make a sound when either taking a picture, starting, stopping or pausing a video recording, and the shutter sound must even be audible in “manner” (mute) mode. The shutter sound must also not be able to be substituted with user-defined sound files (otherwise people could set a file that actually had no sound).
Even today, these rules are applied to all cellphones sold in Japan — including Apple’s iPhone.
Apple is famous for creating a single model of its products for the global market, and when the iPhone first hit Japan, Apple steadfastly refused to customize it for the Japanese market. That is, they did not add such standard Japanese features as 1-seg TV, an IC wallet or an earthquake alert (though alerts were later added). Even though those features might have helped gain more Japanese users, Apple chose the simplicity of global logistics. However, there was one thing that Apple did change for Japan — the shutter sound. You cannot silence the camera shutter sound on Japanese iPhones, as you can in other countries.
It is interesting that all the phone manufacturers and carriers have cooperated to make the shutter sound standard. On the surface this seems to be to discourage perverts and to protect (mainly) women victims; in reality, companies can avoid responsibility this way. By making the shutter audible, no one can say that the manufacturers are liable for any embarrassment suffered by victims of upskirters and so on.
Even so, there are actually many smartphone camera apps that can suppress the shutter sound — something the police worry may encourage voyeurism. On a news program on NHK in January this year, Tokyo Metropolitan Police said that there were 615 arrests for camera voyeurism in 2012 — a 24 percent rise from 2011, and up 60 percent from 2007. Of those arrested 64 percent had used cellphone cameras. Most incidents occurred during train commutes.
In 2011, Chiba police even arrested a man for taking photos of a woman’s face while she slept on a train, indicating that what constitutes voyeurism is vague. In this case the issue seems to be more about invasion of privacy than it is about voyeurism. Which raises the questions: What would be the result if a person was to video someone they were looking at without that person knowing? Will hidden recording by someone wearing Google Glass be a crime?
Google Glass is the logical next stage in personal communication devices, and considering the dubious history of the cellphone camera in Japan, it will no doubt be used by voyeurs to take illicit videos. Google — and possibly phone carriers if Glass is sold by them — will need to address this, and before it can be released here, they may have to offer something similar to an audible shutter to notify when the device is recording. Or perhaps Google will surprise us all and create some kind of new detection software that will recognize a voyeuristic situation and block video. That may sound far fetched, but it sure would be cool.
Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on the Japanese Web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.