Okay, maybe not a revolution. But Google Glass is certainly shaking things up.

Google’s new augmented reality device “Google Glass” is promising, to say the least. The head-mounted computer boasts the ability to take pictures, record videos, start Google Hangouts, and get turn-by-turn directions, all through a visual overlay controlled by voice commands. (For more on the technology itself see Katie Kuhn’s post. For a proposed ban on using Google Glass while driving, see Kendall Short’s post).

The new technology has been called the most advanced device since the iPhone; yet, as the buzz over the device has increased, so have privacy concerns about its use. Critics of Glass have focused on two major privacy issues: surreptitious recording and facial recognition.

Joshua Topolsky from Verge recently got to demo the new tech. When he entered a Starbucks with his camera crew, employees asked him to stop filming, and the camera crew did. But nevertheless Topolsky managed to secretly keep the Glass’ video recorder going for the entire visit. This concern extends beyond corporate policy–even in casual encounters with friends it may be hard to tell if the Glass-wearer you are talking to is recording. And at least in public, such surreptitious recording or photography is not illegal–it is only outlawed in places where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

But is this anything new? Smartphones have been able to silently take pictures and videos of people for years now. Entire blogs are based on pictures of people in public, often taken without their knowledge. However, while keeping your phone pointed at someone may eventually arouse suspicion, recording with Glass requires nothing more than casually looking in their direction. Does the ease with which recording can be concealed fundamentally change the privacy debate for Glass? Or does this new device simply raise the same concerns as smartphones? It is worth noting that taking a picture or recording with Glass is not entirely clandestine. It requires a spoken command (“Okay Glass, Take a Picture”) or a tap on the side of the device.

More Orwellian concerns focus on the facial recognition potential of the new technology. Critics imagine a world where “you’re never going to see a stranger as a stranger again”–Google Glass would recognize the faces of people you meet and display their personal information directly from their Facebook or LinkedIn account. However, it seems unlikely that Google would risk including a feature like that anytime soon, at least not without accommodating privacy concerns. Consider Facebook’s own facial recognition service, “Tag Suggestions.” The social media giant’s much more innocuous service quickly aroused the ire of government agencies in Norway, Germany, and Ireland, and landed Facebook in a Congressional hearing. In contrast, Google has shown more restraint with their own social media service Google+, requiring users to “opt-in” in order to be included in their facial-recognition-based tagging feature. And Senator Al Franken (D-Minn), one of the most vocal critics of Facebook at the hearing, was optimistic about Google considering privacy in rolling out the new device. (Although he hinted that he would be “talking” to Google about its deployment of Glass.) At the very least, Google will be talking to the FTC: as a response to Google’s past privacy transgressions, the company entered a 20-year consent decree with the federal agency that requires biennial assessments of its privacy practices.

Although Google Glass is still in early user testing, and will not be available to consumers for some time, the privacy debate is in full swing. States have proposed laws banning their use while driving, a restaurant has banned them altogether, and groups have sprung up to protest the use of the augmented reality eyewear. The issue will continue to evolve as more people use the device and more is revealed about its capabilities. Will more states pass laws about use while driving? Will more restaurants and stores ban their use? Or will social norms end up governing? (“Hey, take those things off when you talk to me!”) The future of Google Glass is certainly unclear.

–Michael Silliman

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5 Responses to Blurry Future for Google Glass

  1. Patrick says:

    Jonathon, I’m thinking along the same lines, but the problem is that, at least in my opinion, it will be a lengthy process. You or I might be able to rather quickly reconcile our desire for privacy and desire for technology (I would lean heavily toward the side of technology). But I doubt my neighbors will adapt anywhere near as quickly as I’m willing to, and I respect that right.

    I’m not sure what the answers are, but this post definitely raises a lot of the right questions.

  2. Jonathan Hoffmann says:

    Not to speak in such platitudes or to ignore privacy concerns, but is it time for a paradigm shift? It seems like each new technological advance we worry about privacy interests. Google glass, privacy; gps on phones, privacy; ubiquitous security cameras, privacy. We need to reconcile our desire with technology and our desire for privacy. Google did not develop this technology for science. Google developed it for consumption. We want these toys and technology and we want our privacy, but the two can’t mix. So, we need to re-conceive the reasonable expectation of privacy or our choices in the marketplace.

  3. Thomas M. says:

    This is a really interesting read. I am particularly interested to see how technology like this might alter what a “reasonable expectation of privacy” means. Just the way improved picture & video capability on cell phones changed when someone should expect some form of privacy, I feel this might do the same. Could it be possible that as the technology spreads, everyone should assume/expect that anytime someone wearing Glass is around them there is a possibility they are being recorded? It will be interesting to watch since the excitement around Glass is doing nothing besides building.

  4. Shannon Han says:

    Great Post Mike! I am really interested in seeing how businesses continue to respond to this potentially disruptive technology. The Seattle bar that initially banned Google Glasses has already admitted that it was just a PR stunt. The article also makes a great point that complaining businesses already record their customers on security cameras.

    Also, as the applications are built out, it will be interesting to see if they can adapt to commercial purposes. Ordering by looking at a menu or adding QR codes to price tags so that the glasses can decode the sales price could be just the beginning. The camera has so much more potential than simply recording video footage and it would be nice to see the world embrace the full spectrum of possibilities.

  5. Jeff says:

    Michael, thanks for an interesting post. I particularly like your question about the extent to which social pressure will shape the use of the technology. The continued recording in Starbucks seemed to require a combination of the employees not recognizing the technology and then being reluctant to directly challenge it. It will be interesting to see what happens if Glass becomes an easily recognized artifact. Would Google think it’s “evil” to disguise the tech?