The Real Privacy Implications of Google Glass

The real concern with Google Glass and privacy doesn't have to do with surveillance or collection of personal data, but with the way it will make us behave in the real world.

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Dan Forbes for TIME

Over the last few weeks, Google has steadily been building hype around Google Glass. The search giant revealed tech specs, explained how the software works, and has even let some of the tech press get their hands on the “Explorer Edition” of the device, an early version that costs a cool $1,500.

One thing Google hasn’t done is talk about the privacy implications of Glass, which has a built-in camera that can sneakily take photos and video at any time. It seems the company would rather let the debate play out on its own.

I think this is a mistake on Google’s part, but I also think much of the fearful prognosticating over Google Glass is misplaced. The real concern with Google Glass and privacy doesn’t have to do with surveillance or collection of personal data, but with the way it will make us behave in the real world.

The Debate Thus Far

Google Glass supporters have a few standard lines of defense against privacy critics. They claim that Glass isn’t much different than a smartphone in terms of capabilities, that people will have common decency about what to record, and that bystanders will learn to recognize when they’re on camera.

Robert Scoble, arguably the biggest Glass advocate outside of Google, tries to swat down privacy complaints in a post on Google+:

They think we’re going to follow them into bathrooms and record “their junk.” … If I wanted to do that I’d rather use my new Android phone, which has a much better camera and, um, can be more easily aimed without grabbing attention. The microphone on my iPhone is better, too, and video is much sharper and isn’t quite as wide angle, so I can see more details if I’m trying to be pervy anyway (which I’m not).

They think I’m going to walk by them recording everything they are saying. After getting [Glass] that’s laughable.

Scoble claims that the privacy concerns around Glass are overblown, and in a way, he’s right. The vast majority of people aren’t perverts or creeps, and wouldn’t use Glass as a force of evil. Besides, the real stalkers already have better tools at their disposal.

But in making his defense, Scoble also touches on something more subtle. Because Glass opens the possibility of surreptitious recording, people will learn to put their guard up in the device’s presence. Ever notice that people tweak their behavior when you train a camera on them?  Glass has the potential to make that feeling the norm.

Tim Stevens, in his review of the Glass Explorer Edition at Engadget, captures this notion perfectly:

The point can certainly be made that it’s possible to take a picture or video of someone these days without their knowledge, but the situation here is a bit reversed: nobody knows if you’re not taking a picture or video of them. This will, at first, result in some good-natured “Are you recording this?” comments in conversations but, as time goes on, as a wearer, you’ll notice that people will be acting a little more cautiously around you. (As an aside, they’ll also struggle to maintain eye contact. One person told us that Glass looked like a “third eye” that he couldn’t stop staring at.)

Google Glass may expose us to prying eyes, but that risk already applies to existing technology, as Scoble pointed out. As for data collection, Google already knows plenty about its users through Gmail, Maps and Search. The only major new frontier for Glass is face recognition, but it’s a stretch to assume that Glass would start auto-tagging everyone it sees and building some secret mugshot database.

If there’s one thing we should really worry about, it’s that we’ll treat each other differently, and trust each other less, when Glass is around. (A related argument from Edward Champion is that the Glass will discourage personal risk.)

We’re already expected to behave this way online. On social networks, the general rule is that you should always assume anything could become public. While most of us will never have to deal with a scandal caused by information leaked from social media, the mere possibility is enough for us to watch what we say on social networks. Google Glass has the potential to bring that kind of guarded approach to the real world, even in private settings.

Google’s Non-Response

Google can’t exactly solve this dilemma, not without removing the camera — and with it, a major selling point — from Glass. Besides, removing the camera wouldn’t stop a competitor from swooping in with its own camera-equipped Glass clone.

In lieu of easy answers, Google should start with meaningful discussion — not PR spin — of the Glass’ privacy implications. What are Google’s business motivations behind Glass, and what sort of additional data does the company intend to collect? Why not put an LED or some other sort of video recording indicator on the device, so people know when they’re on camera? Does Google think bars and restaurants should ban Glass from their businesses? Should Google offer these businesses a way to disable photo and video recording? Does the company even care that we might erode our trust for one another by wearing Glass at all times? We can hazard a guess to many of these questions, but without Google’s input, we’d just be speculating, and we have no idea whether Google is seriously considering the concerns that people have raised.

For a company that loves to tout its openness, it’s surprising that Google has kept quiet for this long. Although some of the concerns around Google Glass seem overblown, it’s a device with real privacy implications that now exists in the real world. Google should stop pretending that there’s nothing to worry about.

15 comments
Demosthenes//
Demosthenes//

I would think politicians would be scrambling to legislate Google's "Glass" and other embedded technologies. It only takes a single leak to ruin a political campaign. Remember Mitt Romney's 47% comment about blue collar Americans. It cost him any chance he had of obtaining the presidency. With embedded technology like "Glass" making spying more ubiquitous their careers are the most vulnerable because they already have the public's eyes trained on them.  

bd9598
bd9598

It's illegal to record conversation without the person's consent, it should be illegal to video or take someone's picture without their permission. I don't like or use Google. It's not Android, it's Google. Their permissions already say they have full rights to access your network, wifi, PHONE calls and settings, texts, etc. WHY? My phone calls and phone? no thanks. 

twinkle_SPARK
twinkle_SPARK

Products like Google GLASS may turn GOOGLE "A SUSPECT SPYING AGENCY" in eyes of all  !

PeterEdwardHarrington
PeterEdwardHarrington

At the moment there is nothing to worry about. No one uses Glass apart from some wealthy dudes that always want the latest thing. Explorers, yea right. Look at me, I'm exploring my stock portfolio! Anyway, point being, these articles are pretty much irrelevant and only designed to get the participating website traffic. The damn goggles aren't even in production. I for one will be purchasing the John Lennon version. The one where everyone's face is replaced with Yoko Ono. Mum, you split up The Beatles!!

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

The most disingenuous statement ever: "The real concern with Google Glass and privacy doesn’t have to do with surveillance or collection of personal data, but with the way it will make us behave in the real world."

It seems to me that if the matter didn't have anything to do with the ability to easily and inconspicuously obtain surveillance and collect personal data on anyone anytime they're within reach of the sensors of the device, no one would have to worry about how they behave at all.  Lets put the horse BEFORE the cart for a change in this particular debate.

thexstories
thexstories

Google is all bout thievery and porn ... I am yet to witness anything else.

internetfavs
internetfavs

I still cant see myself wearing these glasses, but who knows.........

internetfavs.com

siavash.fahimi
siavash.fahimi

My concern is not the privacy at all, but what's scary is the future of the Glass that make the augmented reality the reality of our society. The main usage of the glass is not about taking photos and recording videos, but to augment the reality, enhance it and add extra information that we already see. 

The privacy can be controlled by law, we see everything that we want to see and no ones can stop us from seeing things nor recording, that's fine, but publishing recorded videos with public or use them in an unlawful action like blackmailing is the problem which can be controlled by law.

what's scary is, Why do human beings need to augment the reality? it brings this thought that something is deeply wrong with current reality and it's not matching up with our natural expectation of our senses, therefore we need to enhance what we sense from our environment,  we need more data on everything we see, we don't need to memorize many things which we were used to, but our brain will analyse more data instead of saving information. 

Imagine a generation of this glass which has full transparent glasses covering both eyes with dual cameras for 3D recording. This glass can completely change what you can see with your eyes and your brain can take it as a reality. It's cool, but just scary. 

The next step I think is to integrate Google's Ingress with Google Glass and play the game in the city where you can see exotic matter portals in your neighborhood as real as real world. (to be honest i would love to play such a game and have such a Glass, but still it's scary)

What I know for sure is that the Glass is an evolutionary and mandatory step in the modern society as we force our environment to evolve. But will it change the way we live to the dark side or the right side? No one knows for sure, because our perception of the dark side and the right side will also change.

Em_Gregor
Em_Gregor

I am not too concerned with the privacy implications but I honestly don't know a single person on my campus that I think would be interested in this product unless it was for a futuristic halloween costume. 

ahmed_hassan91
ahmed_hassan91

The argument of Scoble is very weak. Firstly, when you want to take a picture of a person with your phone that person can always figure out that a picture is being taken. The simple reason, when taking a picture your phone is tilted to a certain angle to capture the image. Thus a person can quickly identify that a picture is being taken. Secondly, when a person is using a phone to take a picture, it is easily identifiable that a picture is taken, as their body language gives of a vibe. taking these points into consideration, lets provide an example: lets say your in the tube, and opposite you an individual is browsing on their phone (will be tilted to a low angle), but suddenly that person decides to take a picture of you, that phone tilt will totally change to a higher angle (no one reads on a higher angle) and thus it is highly likely that person is taking an picture + their vibe gives it off. With the google glass, no one would have any idea if that person is taking a picture or not (as its all tilted to a high position, thus suitable to take a picture). We have no idea what that person will get up to with a picture of you. Brin argues that their are not many perverts out their. Again that is laughable, their are many pedos, and pervs out their ready to pounce on this technology and use it for their need. You literally see a news headline everyday, something to do with child molest, etc... 

ChrisKawahito
ChrisKawahito

Beaches will have a women that are a lot more covered. They need to have a built in plastic cover that slides open for the camera, sticking out slightly, making it obvious that it can potentially be recording.

johndinglerart
johndinglerart

No, Robert Scoble and the author Jared Newman are using a Straw Man argument, saying that snoopers can use the iPhone and already have other ways to be a peeping tom; No one is saying that, so they are being illogical. Holding a phone requires  holding it with the hand, a conscious activity, thus purposeful, while Spy Glasses say on and the person can forget about them, all the while the person is the cameraman/soundman, recording all before him for Google. Google winds up collecting data the whole while, just like the US gov.'s Total Information Awareness and, before that, it was Carnivore. We found about the latter and the gov. supposedly shut it down, but likely renaming it, giving it the whole power of the US Patriot Act to keep it alive, no longer hidden.


So, you see, active vs. passive is the point, while the active points raised by those two are diversionary, off point, as if they are working for "the man," not the people. The man, by the way, is now the corporation, or the corporate state, or the National Security Police State Apparatus. Call it what you want, it's the 1% based on privilege, wealth, or power, getting wealthier and wealthier.


I think that Google Spy Glass is a part of that scheme.

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

I still want one.

It could be kinda scary being filmed in video and not having any idea, but it could happen without "Glass".

I still want one.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@DeweySayenoff That's a fair point. In hindsight I should have phrased it differently. My concern isn't government surveillance (which is possible with or without Glass) or Google's own data collection (the data collected from Glass is similar to that of an Android phone), but how the threat of constant recording by friends/family/acquaintances/strangers might change the way we behave.