On September 9th 2021, Facebook launched the very first ‘Ray-Ban Stories’ sunglasses. They’ve been described (by reviewers given a free pair to promote) as a “feat of engineering prowess”, high-spec specs; these are sunglasses fitted with a camera, speakers and microphones - all of which are discreetly hidden. There’s a tiny dim white dot that signals when the glasses are recording video, a feature that could be so easily and invisibly covered that it has little to no function as a privacy-protector. It’s basically invisible in daylight.
It is impossible, given Facebook’s history of privacy violations, to see these glasses as anything but privacy plunderers. They only function when connected to the app Facebook View - an app that collects data on your “health and fitness, purchases, finances, location, contacts, search history, sensitive data, and more”. Buying the glasses means uploading your life, body and mind directly to Facebook, for hours at a time.
This is not the first time a big tech surveillance company has tried to get us wearing cameras on our heads - Google launched its ‘Google Glass’ back in 2013 (a spectacular failure), and Snapchat’s ‘Spectacles’ (which didn’t see much more success) were on the market three years later. Despite the obvious lack of commercial interest thus far, the companies are persistent - Snapchat launched the fourth generation of frames for its Spectacles in March 2021, and Google is still developing its workplace-focussed ‘Enterprise Edition’ glasses.
Why these companies are all so determined to perfect a product none of the public seem particularly interested in buying is because it lays the groundwork for perpetual, ubiquitous surveillance. It’s not because they think it’s cool - in fact, the functionality is pretty dreadful. The speakers don’t actually go into your ears, for example, so if you’re taking a call or listening to a podcast, you’re broadcasting that to everyone around you. Although, if you’re still thinking of buying these, I’m guessing privacy isn’t your main concern.
While the implications of these Ray-Bans existing are discomforting enough (from now on, you never know if you’re being recorded, even from someone directly in front of you; and what if the police start using them like they’re already using Amazon’s doorbells, to surveil all citizens at all times?)... But these high-price fashionable spy-sunglasses are not even the end goal: they’re test products to get everyone ready for the mass rollout of ‘augmented reality’.
Augmented reality (or AR) technology is an advanced system that overlays digital imagery over the top of real life - a harmless enough example is the dog filter on Snapchat. Most big tech companies intend to create some form of AR glasses (both the Spectacles and Google Glass mentioned above have AR features), because it’s the ultimate way to maximise both data collection and content engagement from every user.
If you’ve got a pair of glasses set to your prescription, that you literally need to see properly, with AR capabilities, you have invited a big tech company into your immediate field of view for every second of every day. Its intention is to transform your life into a non-stop process of engagement - ‘hey, Mark says you should walk over to his house: follow the blue lines now flashing on the path to get there’, ‘here’s where to buy that t-shirt I saw you looking at for 11.3 seconds just now - blink to buy it’. And so on.
Even if these sunglasses don’t sell well, their purpose of making advanced spyware commonplace, of getting us all used to the idea that we should continually wear headcams and stream our every movement to Facebook’s notoriously human-rights-abusing algorithms, will likely be successful.
We must demand better from our technology.
Editor's Note: This post was written prior to the announcement of Facebook's company name change to 'Meta', and their company's explicit rebranding as an AR-focussed company.