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Google Glass Controversy Provides Fresh Look at Privacy Expectations

The buzz continues to build about Google Glass, generating explanatory reviews, opinion pieces, etiquette guides -- even a Saturday Night Live sketch. As early users and tech writers offer first-person accounts, reviews and analysis -- some ecstatic, some skeptical -- much of the debate is centering on privacy concerns over the potentially game-changing wearable computer product.

A New York Times article this week discusses the legal issues awaiting the release and potential widespread use of the device. "Glass is arriving just as the courts, politicians, privacy advocates, regulators, law enforcement and tech companies are once again arguing over the boundaries of technology in every walk of life," David Streitfeld writes. The article quotes social media expert Bradley Shear, who says that Glass "will test the right to privacy versus the First Amendment."

The Times piece describes the backlash already building against Google Glass well in advance of its release. A Seattle bar made headlines by pre-emptively banning Glass, while legislators in West Virginia are trying to add the device to a state ban on texting while driving. Of course, establishments (such as casinos) that already ban recording devices are also unlikely to be Glass-friendly. Computerworld has reported that a spokesperson for Caesars Palace said that wearers of Google Glass won't be allowed to gamble in the casino.

In a CNN opinion piece, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff paints an ominous picture of wearable technology like Google Glass, imagining a near future in which "millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them." The distinction between these devices and older technology such as smartphones with video capabilities, Chertoff writes, is that their "default mode is for all data to be automatically uploaded to cloud servers, where aggregation and back-end analytic capacity resides." Chertoff asks, "What is to prevent a corporation from targeting a particular individual, using face recognition technology to assemble all uploaded videos in which he appears, and effectively constructing a surveillance record that can be used to analyze his life?"

An activist group called Stop the Cyborgs has been advancing similar concerns, with the stated purpose of stopping "a future in which privacy is impossible and central control total." Stop the Cyborgs says that it isn't calling for a total ban on Glass and any similar technology, but is advocating that lawmakers and makers of the device guarantee that it won't be used in conjunction with a facial recognition system; that a do-not-track system is put into place; and that the data will be encrypted "so that it is impossible for it to be data-mined, made available to security services or used for commercial purposes." There's also a White House petition in place that calls for a ban on Glass "until clear limitations are placed to prevent indecent public surveillance."

Meanwhile, some early users are reporting that, as a surveillance device, Glass in its current form just isn't that threatening. Future Tense's Will Oremus writes that it "makes a terrible spy tool," in part because, "from the instant you slip Google Glass over your ears, you become the most conspicuous person in any room." That's not so great for taking covert photos and video footage, he says, especially since actually getting the device to record involves "barking commands at your own face," and/or jerking your head upward (See SNL's interpretation of that behavior here).

It's clear that the discussion over the legal and societal implications of Google Glass is just beginning. TIME Tech columnist Jared Newman suggests that Google itself should be more proactive in addressing confusion and concerns about Glass, calling upon the company to foster "meaningful discussion -- not PR spin -- of the Glass' privacy implications." While stating his own opinion that that many of the concerns about Glass are overblown, Newman writes that "Google should stop pretending that there's nothing to worry about."

Posted by Laurel Newby on May 9, 2013 at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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