Google Glass Cons: How the Camera-Embedded Eyeglasses Could Shatter Privacy


The potential for face-recognition technology is troublesome

If the NSA is Big Brother, the increasing number of Google Glass wearers on the street are an army of Little Brothers.

Although impressive, this wearable technology comes with a rash of anti-privacy side effects. The Glass wearer chooses to be connected to Google’s servers, but the people in their lines of sight — and lens — do not.

Glass can take an automatic photo every few seconds and send it back to Google’s servers, essentially turning any Glass wearer into a walking Google surveillance camera. It can stream video, too.

Not only could that make unwitting bystanders the reluctant stars of Internet videos, but it could end up in law enforcement’s hands, too. If the NSA scandal taught us anything, it’s that private companies like Google turn over hefty amounts of their user’s data to the government. Glass is not exempt.

SEE MORE: View All Stories from Our Special Report on Google

Acknowledging privacy concerns, Glass developers built in signals to notify someone when they’re being filmed: A screen light indicates video recording, and the subject will have to say “OK Glass, take a photo” to allow it to do so.

But even if you do see that you’re being filmed, the burden’s on you to ask the Glass wearer — or what some are calling the “Glasshole” — to stop. It’ll create new social etiquette, and awkwardness, around being filmed.

SEE MORE: Google Glass Pros: In the Long Run, the Benefits Outweigh the Drawbacks

Should Glass be allowed to go wherever a person can? What about bathrooms, private parties or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings? An advocacy group, Stop the Cyborgs, launched to raise awareness of this question, in part by handing out “No Google Glass Zone” stickers. Several restaurants have already declared themselves to be Glass-free zones.

Glass has already aided law enforcement in one well-publicized case, when a documentary filmmaker recording a Fourth of July fireworks show caught a fistfight on camera. He said he was able to record because Glass was hard to notice, unlike the obvious method of holding up a cell phone.

But data capture isn’t the only privacy problem with Glass: It’s also data use. The most controversial is facial recognition, technology that scans and identifies specific faces.

Just like fingers and irises, faces have unique patterns that make them one of a kind. Facial recognition is already in use from Facebook to bars to airports. It’s already extremely accurate and getting even more sophisticated.

Picture a man at a bar who merely looks at a woman to learn her name. Then he can do a few quick searches to find her age, address, phone number and interests. It might sound like science fiction, but it’s already here.

After a Congressional committee wrote an open letter questioning Google about their privacy concerns around facial recognition, Google stated that the technology won’t be supported at the launch of Glass. They also revised their app developer policy to prevent Glass developers from building facial recognition in their apps. Still, politicos say they’re disappointed by Google’s inadequate answers.

And just because facial recognition isn’t part of Glass’s launch doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually. The Glass platform supports it, and several companies have already built facial recognition apps for it. There’s big benefit, and money, in getting a name from a face.

Glass is a new form of digital narcissism that drags in unknowing bystanders. It shrinks the private sphere and makes the public realm even more public.

People aren’t the same when they know they’re being watched. If the growth of Glass means more micro-surveillance, it’ll also hurt the privacy that lets us live full, explorative, uncensored lives.

(Sarah A. Downey is an attorney and privacy analyst at Abine Inc.)

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  1. David Brin says:

    David Brin here, author of the “pro” side of this debate. I appreciate Sarah Downey’s sincere and intelligent survey of privacy concerns, regarding Google Glass. Indeed, I raised similar questions in my book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (back in 1997).

    There is a problem though. Ms. Downey suggests no solutions. No law or regulation that could possibly put this genie back into the bottle. As nearly always happens, she addresses the thing in front of her — Google Glass — and makes no effort to look farther ahead, to when this hulking, borg-like contraption will shrink into the frame of a regular pair of sunglasses. Does she doubt this will happen? Heck, I know folks who are already compressing many of these features into contact lenses.

    In such a world, laws banning Augmented Reality gear (like Google Glass) will only prevent average citizens from getting them. Does Ms. Downey prescribe a world where elites of government, wealth, criminality etc can survey us like gods, and we are powerless to look back?

    What she fails to do is ever consider how technology can help us, rather than threaten us. For your own AR glasses can be programmed with an app to DETECT when other specs are staring at you. To detect the voyeurs and peeping toms. To empower you to catch those who stare and thus deter them, exactly as today you can deter those who stare or eavesdrop in a restaurant.

    I do now guarantee that is what will happen. But I consider it terribly sad that luddite hand-wringing is the only reaction that seems possible. Never the confident belief in people, that we will take these new powers and use them to enhance our autonomy and freedom.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

    • Herbert Dinksplatter says:

      You might have a point if you were talking about covert recording systems, a hypothetical future GNU glass or perhaps Steve Mann’s Eyetap. But the topic is Google Glass and as a Sousveillence device Google Glass Sucks.

      * It can be remotely killed by Google.
      * The all data passes through Google’s servers.
      * The Glass user who took particular footage can be easily identified and tracked.

      It is easy to see how Glass would help catch an individual violent cop. Though it is not clear that it is any better for this than a phone, GoPro or camcorder. It is how it might give the Google and the NSA total visibility into everyone’s lives. But how exactly would Google Glass allow people to hold elites to account if the elite were for example Google or an organization say for example the NSA working with Google?

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