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.