Author Mark Richards

Snapchat, the photo-sharing and instant-messaging app, has launched a pair of glasses – Snapchat specs – that allow you to record ten seconds of video. Sounds like a lot of fun – but what are the implications for our privacy?

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu wrote about them; the Allies used them in the Second World War; they were a permanent feature of the Cold War. Their methods included dead letter drops, secret codes, bribery and seduction. We have all heard of Mata Hari, George Smiley and James Bond…

I am talking – of course – about spies.

Being a spy was a specialised business: only the most daring could do it, armed with only most sophisticated technology…

Until now. And it is all thanks to Snapchat – and a pair of specs.

Snapchat Spectacles

Most people have heard of Snapchat, the photo-sharing/instant-messaging app that was launched 5½ years ago and recently floated on the stock market with a valuation of $24 billion.

Now they have developed a pair of spectacles which can record ten seconds of video. How do you do that? Simply tap the button on your glasses. They automatically record the video and automatically upload it to the ‘Memories’ section of Snapchat via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

The glasses are the first hardware Snapchat has launched. Essentially, they are just a camera – there is no display so they do not need the technology to play back something you have just filmed. Rather than use the app on your phone, simply pop your glasses on and activate a switch on your glasses.

The specs are a great idea. Who hasn’t wanted to instantly record what has suddenly appeared in front of them? But if you are anything like me, by the time you have found your phone, tapped in your security number, opened the camera and pressed record it is too late. You have missed the remarkably funny thing your cat was doing or remarkably wonderful thing your child was doing. So just tapping the side of your glasses is the obvious solution.

Sounds like fun. How can I buy a pair of Snapchat Specs?

‘With great difficulty’ is the short answer. First and foremost you need to head over to Spectacles, a website which will reveal the site of the next pop-up vending machine, nicknamed the ‘Snapbot.’ So far the spectacles have only been available in the US, but now the Snapbot is coming to London. So if you can get there and if you are at the front of the queue and if you are happy to pay £129.99 then you will own a pair of the most sought-after glasses in the world and you can start filming 10 seconds of whatever you want to film. Or alternatively, you can head straight over to eBay, where your Snapchat specs will apparently net you £900. Not a bad return for standing in a queue at a vending machine.

But there are real worries about surveillance and privacy

there are real worries about surveillance and privacy

Taken at face value (sorry) Snapchat Specs are just ten seconds of harmless fun – but think about what they could be used for and it is easy to see why they have led to real worries about increasing surveillance and privacy. One comment on Twitter may have taken it slightly too far – Snapchat has now gone full circle. From a private and ephemeral space for teens to a full-blown surveillance state – but it captured people’s worries. As another user tweeted, When we are under 24/7 surveillance we will have done it to ourselves.

Right now our privacy is threatened less by the state than it is by our friends, with every moment potentially recorded and shared on apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

But the development of Snapchat Specs could take us into a new realm, with particularly worrying implications for education and the workplace. Technology moves at a dizzying pace and where Snapchat has gone, other companies will follow. Ten seconds of video will become thirty seconds will become five minutes. Given that careers have been ended by 140 characters in an unguarded tweet, what could happen with five minutes of even-more-unguarded video?

Quite clearly, the development of Snapchat specs could lead to increasing claims of bullying and/or sexual harassment in the workplace. Through the course of the working day, the vast majority of us will have ten seconds where our guard is down or our political correctness compass is not working – when we would rather not share what we say or do with the rest of the world.

What about education?

The same holds true in the classroom – or more probably on the playing field, as Snapchat Specs will unquestionably be banned in schools. Claims of bullying and inappropriate behaviour – backed by ten seconds of evidence – are likely to escalate. And how will parents be treated? How many schools now ban video cameras from even the most innocent of school plays? Five years from now will they ban everyone wearing glasses? I’m very sorry, Mr Smith, but parents wearing glasses and watching the children is out with our safeguarding policy.

What else will the Snapchat Specs be used for?

Well, er… It appears that one of their principal uses could be for what my Grandma used to call ‘hanky-panky.’ Rachel – who describes herself as a ‘media entrepreneur’ – was reported as saying she used the specs in the early stages of an ‘intimate encounter’ with a partner. There is no report on whether the 10 seconds of footage immediately went into Rachel’s Snapchat memories, but she did report a sudden increase in friend requests…

It is generally accepted that young people today are the most watched, monitored and documented generation in history – and it is not just Snapchat, Instagram or CCTV. Companies like Amazon and Facebook have legions of data scientists, logging your browsing and buying history. Amazon knows every search you have made, every product you have clicked on since you opened your account.

Now along comes the Snapchat Specs to add another layer to the surveillance and monitoring. Very clearly, if someone taps their specs and starts recording you they are doing so without your consent: equally clearly, technology will continue to move on. But will the moral, ethical and social values of people move on with it? It may not be just Rachel who suddenly receives a lot more friend requests…