Google Opens Up About Glass Privacy, Zombification

During a "fireside chat" about Glass at Google's I/O conference, Google employees opened up.

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Until now, Google has stayed eerily quiet on the privacy implications of Google Glass, seemingly content to let the tech world debate the issue among themselves.

But during a “fireside chat” about Glass at Google’s I/O conference, Google employees opened up. Their responses represent the company’s most thorough take yet on the privacy issues surrounding Google Glass.

Google Glass, if you’re unaware, is a pair of mock spectacles with a mounted display, camera, microphone and touch panel. So far, Google has only sent out Glass to a couple thousand developers, along with a few members of the press. And over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether society would be better or worse off with head-mounted displays and cameras.

Steve Lee, the product director for Google Glass, offered a few responses to the criticisms so far:

  1. Google purposely mounted the display for Glass just above the eye, forcing users to look up at the screen. “Once you’re around someone with Glass, you’ll know they’re paying attention to you because they’re looking at you,” Lee said. Later in the session, Lee said the screen’s high placement makes it hard to look at for long periods of time, encouraging quick sessions instead. That was also by design. “We don’t want to create zombies staring up at their display for long periods of time,” Lee said.
  2. Regarding the potential for surreptitious recording, Lee said Glass purposely requires “social queues”–that is, tapping the side of the device, or speaking–to snap a photo or start taking video. Engineering director Charles Mendis added that “you kind of notice” when someone’s staring at you. “If you walk into the restroom, even without Glass, and someone’s just looking at you, I don’t know about you but I’d get out of there,” Mendis said.
  3. Lee pointed out that when you use Glass, the display lights up, so other people will always know when Glass is active. Google won’t allow Glass apps that don’t light up the screen while the device is in use.

Granted, a lot of those points have already come up without Google’s intervention. It’s good, at least, to hear that Google considered privacy implications while designing the Glass hardware.

Meanwhile, Google dodged the privacy angle during another question about facial recognition. Lee said Google experimented with the feature, but hasn’t implemented it–at least not yet. “Me being a product person, the way I view it, I’m not scared of it, but I want to make sure there’s clear user benefit,” Lee said.

(UPDATE: Google asked us to post this statement from Lee: “We’ve consistently said that we won’t add new face recognition features to our services unless we have strong privacy protections in place.” The statement doesn’t cite specifics, but Google’s comments date back to at least 2011, when rumors suggested that Google may add face recognition to its Goggles app for smarthphones. At the time, Google said it “won’t add face recognition to Goggles unless we can figure out a strong privacy model for it.  We haven’t figured it out.” Google reiterated those claims after acquiring a facial recognition firm later that year. It’s certainly a topic worthy of more discussion with the arrival of Glass.)

The idea that Glass could someday let users persistently identify people around them shouldn’t be brushed under the rug. If facial recognition is the inevitable future of Glass, we should be discussing the privacy implications now. I’ve previously said it’s a stretch to think Google would use facial recognition to build some secret database of mugshots; I’d still like to hear what Google thinks about the feature’s potential, and the privacy boundaries it would require.

Also, none of the responses from Google employees add up to a more holistic take on Glass privacy. In my view, the mere threat of being constantly recorded by friends, family, acquaintances or strangers has the potential to change our behavior, and make us more guarded in situations once thought to be transient. That’s not a topic Google has touched.

The privacy concerns around Glass will be moot if the product isn’t a hit, but Google does see mainstream potential for the device. Glass has been panned by some as the next Bluetooth headset–a once-trendy but eventually uncool item–but Lee said Google can solve that dilemma by making Glass useful, even to those who aren’t using it. For instance, someone with Glass will be able to record candid moments, or answer trivia questions quickly.

“I’ve yet to meet a person who says they like being around someone who has a Bluetooth headset on,” Lee said. “It’s not a positive image and so we want to do the opposite with Glass.”

Whether Google can make Glass beloved by people who aren’t using it, without simultaneously creeping them out, is arguably the biggest challenge ahead.