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Did Google Flacks Use A Journalist’s Glass to Try Censoring the News?

April 20, 2014

Matt Labash is one of the great journalists writing today.  His extraordinarily insightful piece, Through A Google Glass, Darkly is yet another example of why the guy should write a longread.  (You know, a book.)

Labash documents his initial experience with Google Glass as a “Glass Explorer” and it is both funny and sad which of course makes the funny parts even funnier and the insightful parts even more meaningful, kind of like Studs Terkel meets H.L. Mencken in a movie based on a William Gibson novel directed by Stanley Kubrick.

But–and no MTP reader will be surprised by this–the part of Labash’s piece that really caught my eye was this encounter with a Google flack:

Weirdly, my own trust rating already seems to have taken a hit with Google. In the middle of reporting this piece, I get an unsolicited email from Chris Dale, who heads Glass’s communications shop. He says he “heard through the grapevine” I was working on a story, and would love to help out. Fair enough. I’ve had proactive flacks do that before. But a week later, when I email him to ask some anodyne questions about the mechanics of the Explorer program, he expresses concern.

His concern is “that some folks who ran into you while you were wearing Glass out in public remarked that they felt you were being obnoxious and confrontational and a little evasive in terms of who you were and what outlet you were representing.” Strange. I thought nearly all of my interviews were friendly. And even if I partially played the role of the Glasshole, I nearly always let people know who I am and what I was up to. But even if I didn’t​—​how does he know? I didn’t speak with anyone in the field who worked for Google. Who would go through the trouble of tracking down some flack in Mountain View, Calif., to report me? And anyone to whom I was being even marginally “confrontational” likely would have seen it that way because I’d sometimes argue on behalf of their privacy, even as they seemed perfectly willing to abdicate it.

Like a principal summoning a wayward student to the office, Dale, who in addition to heading Glass’s communications outfit seems to think he’s my editor, asks me to call him. I pass, telling him I’d just as soon keep our exchange in print, so I have a clear record of what gets said. After disabusing him of whatever he is “hearing second-hand” (his words) and explaining my reporting style, I ask him six more questions about Glass. But not before telling him I’d also love to hear who his “mysterious second-hand informer” is, while he should keep in mind that “I likely have better documentation of what was said than they do.” Unless, that is, Google has hacked my Glass. Have they? No, they wouldn’t do that. Especially not after two researchers at Cal Poly came up with an app that would allow others to hijack your camera, just to see if they could. That seemed to displease Google, so I don’t think Google would do that, I jab (sending Dale a link to the Cal Poly story).

But the truth is, Google wouldn’t have had to hack my camera. Could they have seen a testy interview that I taped on Glass? Wouldn’t they have access to that data, the same way they have access to my Gmail account, to my search requests, to God knows what else? Were they spying on me? All interesting questions. But it doesn’t look like I’ll ever know the answer. Even weeks later, Dale hasn’t responded. [Emphasis mine.]

Well…you know what I think.

Here’s a trick I learned from a friend who uses Google Voice with an Android phone.  Say “Machu Picchu” about 10 times while wearing Glass.  Then log into your Google account on your laptop and time how long it takes before travel ads for Peru start showing up.

I want to wish all those Glassholes happy exploring.

And remember: If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

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