Up Periscope, down privacy? Twitter’s live streaming service bound to cause controversy

On the first day of Periscope’s debut, I was instantly taken to places I wanted to be and given intimate access to people that I’d love to meet.

The first stream I watched was former International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield giving his thoughts on Periscope, Twitter’s new video live streaming service. The hundreds of viewers the astronaut’s broadcast rapidly accrued were also treated to a meeting with his dog (although small, Hadfield assured us it is “a man’s dog.”) Next, former Dragon’s Den judge Arlene Dickinson showed off the view from her cottage porch. I almost felt the shared sense of serenity as I took in the coniferous forest and basin lake alongside other viewers of the silent stream. Later that night, I watched the Toronto Maple Leafs practice before their game at the Air Canada Centre thanks to a fan pointing their cell phone at the ice.

All of the above examples demonstrate why video live streaming piggybacking on Twitter is bound to catch on. What Meerkat  exploited first, and now Periscope too, is our innate fear of missing out (FOMO). FOMO is why we use social media in the first place, and especially real-time services like Twitter that let us peek into the thoughts and activities of our peers, or even celebrities. Periscope offers the next best thing to literally seeing the world through the eyes of others.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll hear about all the powerful ways Periscope is being used. We’ll also hear about some of the ways it will be abused.

In some ways, Periscope has only the same potential for abuse as other social media. By now, we’re all used to the idea that our likeness could appear in someone else’s selfie and be posted to Facebook or Twitter. In other ways, Periscope represents a new dimension to the privacy intrusions we all now face on a daily basis. The service has transformed the smartphones in our pockets into instant broadcasting devices, leaving only those who own them as the censors and editors of what goes on air.

Already, Periscope has had to apologize for one privacy blunder. A flaw in the app shares the titles of live broadcasts to Twitter if that option is selected, but not the audio or video. Still, even a title of a broadcast you thought only one person would see could still be embarrassing if made public. Periscope explained the flaw and a workaround on Twitter, promising to fix the problem in an app update.

Bugs like this stir speculation that the app was perhaps rushed before being fully baked, in an attempt to head off the growing success of live stream service Meerkat. So far only an iOS app is available.

Another privacy flaw is flagged by Fast Company. A user sharing their location in a broadcast doesn’t just share the city they are in, but a GPS-assisted approximation of their exact location. The implications are that any user’s home location is known after they share a stream of their pet’s antics or the contents of their fridge.

Periscope has quickly been taken to by teens broadcasting from their bedrooms in the style of a personal diary. This is quite different from doing the same on

Cyber bullying is bound to be a problem on Periscope.
Cyber bullying is bound to be a problem on Periscope.

Youtube, because of the exposure to live comments from the audience as the stream is happening. In a world where cyber-bullying is a real problem, this is sure to be one more place that can occur. Just while writing this article, I found a live stream of a young girl “trying to do the splits” and the comments being made by viewers were disgusting.

I think Periscope is a disruptive app when it comes to privacy, and it’s the grey areas that are most interesting to consider. The concept that our lives are now open to potential live broadcasting at any moment. The idea that a Rob Ford-crack pipe video is no longer trapped in the device that recorded it, but instantly accessible to the masses.

In Canada and much of the western world, the law is clear that people in public places have a reasonable expectation of privacy. While you have to accept that others might take a photo of you if you’re on the street, and that’s fully legal, it would be naive to pretend that Periscope fits into the same category as a disposable camera.

When Google Street View came to Canada, it used its 360-degree cameras to map our streets – and the people on them at the time. It became a hobby to try and find yourself on Street View, but some took exception to seeing their image and location stored in a tool that would be used by millions of people. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada intervened, and Google cooperated with the office, agreeing to blur the faces of people it incidentally photographed while collecting images for Street View.

It seems unlikely that Periscope will be able to do something similar, blurring the images of Canadians incidentally captured in public places during broadcasts. Yet it could be argued the media is open to be accessed just as easily as Google’s Street View.

Now that the Periscope is up, it’s probably not coming down again. As with the preceding technologies that empowered the masses to broadcast, the onus will be placed on all of us to protect our privacy against the growing glare of exposure.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jacksonhttp://www.itbusiness.ca
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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