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5 October 2017

Is Google Clips the creepiest home technology yet?

How laziness is filling our homes with creepy, crappy tech.

By Amelia Tait

What if cameras, but always on? This is the apparent thought process behind one of Google’s new offerings, Clips, which was announced at a product launch in San Francisco last night.

In short, Google Clips is a constantly-watching camera that uses artificial intelligence to capture images automatically. You set it up to recognise you and your loved ones, turn it on, and go about your life. The 55g cube then uses AI to decide whether something that’s happening would make a good picture and if so, it records a short clip. It also costs $249 (£189 to you and me).

This new always-watching camera fits in neatly with Google’s always-listening speaker. For nearly a year, the personal assistant Google Home has allowed people to check the weather, listen to music, or adjust their thermostat using voice commands. Last night, Google announced Home Mini, a smaller version of the speaker, which will essentially allow users the chance to have Homes throughout their house.

Which begs the question: why are we paying hundreds of pounds to have our lives taken over by creepy, invasive tech?

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The short answer is: convenience. Why dim your lights when you can get Google to do it for you? Why laboriously lift up your finger and press down a shutter when Google’s happy to help? Never mind that the company saves all of your searches, tracks and records your location, and has meticulously profiled you in order to send more and more adverts your way. Why not let them literally hear and see you, too?

That’s not to say that Google Clips is the main culprit of creepiness. Much of Google’s presentation was made up of assurances about privacy, and the camera is not connected to a cloud, with photos stored on the device itself and an accompanying app. It also has an LED light which blinks while Clips is active to avoid people being filmed inconspicuously.

Yet even if Google isn’t using the camera to survey you in your home (reminder that it does store all your voice commands when you use its smart speaker), it is easy to see how Clips can be abused. There is always a potential that the device and app can be hacked or hijacked, even if this only on a low level. Burger King has already created a TV advert that forced Google Home to recite an advertisement for its Whopper burger (the ad features a Burger King worker asking “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?” – the prompt needed for Google Home to start its work).  

There is also a potential for average users to disguise or hide the device for notorious reasons, for people to spy on their partners, or – simply – for things to be caught on camera that you would rather weren’t. Parents are already happy that Clips will help them capture their kids, but privacy campaigners have long acknowledged that children are entitled to privacy from their parents.

It is a disturbing trend in technology that we are so willing to sacrifice our security and privacy for a tiny bit of convenience. Google Clips isn’t just creepy – it’s pretty crappy too. While the AI behind it is obviously impressive, the camera has no real use. Yes, your Instagram #candid might actually finally be candid, but who’s to say the device values the same shots you do? If, like the advert suggests, you set it up while baking, what happens if it thinks a great shot is you playing with flour while you wish it caught you folding the batter? Also, who are you? Why do you want footage of yourself baking so much? And if you do, why not just set up a normal camera and capture everything? Nothing has to go wrong with Clips for it still to be far from right.

It is trite to compare modern technology to Orwell’s 1984 or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Season 4 is airing on Netflix soon, but woah! Spooky! Why not just watch real life!!). And despite the fact we allow spying, privacy-invading technology into our homes, we are far from these dystopian fictions. Why? Because unlike the unhappy citizens of Oceania, we willingly spend money to be watched by our telescreens.

Consumer tech-junkies find it boring or blasé to complain about privacy-invading tech, and it’s true that Clips wouldn’t have made it to market without an accompanying presentation on privacy from Google (though if you’re not convinced this tech is dystopian, check out the presenter‘s genuinely enthusiastic and very, truly, definitely authentic delivery). But it is worrying that we, as consumers and citizens, are so apathetic about our own privacy, from the Snoopers Charter passing without fanfare to Amber Rudd’s attempts to end end-to-end encryption – not to mention teenagers tracking each other’s locations and Facebook knowing pretty much everything there is to know about you.

A house full of Google products might be a house in which you don’t have to stand up to adjust the thermostat or pick up a camera to snap Little Bobby playing with his chinchilla, but are these small conveniences really worth inviting a creep into your home? 

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