“That doesn’t even *seem* innocent:” Elon Musk calls out Google’s eerie and invasive Clips camera

Google Clips is Google’s latest product “innovation”, introduced as a tiny, wireless pocket-sized camera with a high-performance lens, a powerful image sensor and a shutter button. It’s a device made specifically with parents and pet owners in mind, but it’s also a further scrape in the unremitting erosion of privacy in our culture.

Google Clips developer Juston Payne introduced the camera as part of the company’s Made By Google event on 4 October. He made clear – on multiple occasions  – that if Clips was capturing images, you’d know about it thanks to an indicator light. But that hasn’t stopped many criticising it, including Elon Musk. 

In a tweet following the launch, the billionaire CEO (who has previously voiced concerns about the rise of AI) suggested Google’s Clips wasn’t even masking its creepy nature. 

Google has said it is not responding to Musk’s tweet, but it’s not too surprising Google was cautious during, and after, the launch event. After the backlash around Google Glass’ always-on nature – and its subsequent failure to take off with consumers – it needs to reassure people Clips isn’t automatically sending back data to Google.

However, during Payne’s presentation, I was reminded of Dave Eggers’ The Circle and its ability to capture the pervasive surveillance of technology companies. To me, Google Clips is an invasion of our privacy. Even though the hardware itself has been built with an eye to reassurance around security, it nevertheless posits a culture where always-on cameras could become the norm.

Being able to place the Clip anywhere flags up a whole multitude of ethical implications, especially as Google is clearly advertising the device as something you can use to photograph your children. While the company’s intentions seem to be innocuous, there is ultimately a feeling that relying on a benign machine to capture images of your nearest and dearest is…well, creepy.

All of this is cemented further with Clips’ AI integration. Over time, Clips’ facial recognition algorithms will be able to capture the perfect shot of you and your kids or pets as it recognises familiar faces without a cloud-connection. This means you can leave it switched on in a room or space and it’ll automatically capture shots it believes frame you and the subject in question best – allowing for ‘in the moment’ photos you’d only otherwise get with another person snapping away around you.

Clips can do this thanks to the Myriad 2 chip, developed by the Intel-owned chipmaker Movidius. It allows all AI processing to be done purely on the device. Using this specialised chip also means Clip lasts longer on a single charge as it doesn’t have to continually send data back and forth to Google’s cloud services.

Whilst technically impressive, Clips’ machine-learning abilities are in danger of making the device seem sinister in its non-human autonomy. I’d love it to catch cute pictures of me and my dog but, with it really being able to be placed in all sorts of places, and seemingly controlled by Google’s own AI, I’m not sure if I’d really want it anywhere near me, let alone in the vicinity of children.

That said, there are people out there who think differently, and having a device that’s capable of being your own personal cameraman is surely going to win many over. The bigger question here is – regardless of how secure Google’s system is – should we move towards a society where we don’t bat an eyelid at always-on cameras in our homes? We’ve gotten used to always-on ears, but are eyes a step too far?

Clips is only available in the US at the moment, although Google is evaluating whether it will bring it to the UK at some point.

If you’re in the States, you’ll be able to get Google Clips for $249 soon.

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