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Google Glass already has some lawmakers on high alert

Lawmakers and privacy experts are wary of how Google Glass could be used, whether to snap photos covertly or to let drivers watch videos.

By Staff writer / March 25, 2013

Google founder Sergey Brin posed for a portrait wearing Google Glass glasses during New York Fashion Week last year.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File

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The ability to record and transmit data on the fly is not new, thanks to digital phone and tablet technology, but Google is raising the stakes by soon allowing users to snap photos and video discreetly via special glasses that operate by voice command.

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The stealth nature of Google Glass is raising concerns among some lawmakers and privacy experts who say the device makes it too easy for users to spy on others and its development signals a deeper blurring between the digital and real worlds. We all may understand the safety hazards and social norms presented when holding our phones up to record or text others, but wearable computers, because they are more inconspicuous, present complications, especially whether they can be regulated through existing electronic surveillance laws, critics say.

“This is the way of the future. We won’t be tied to a desk anymore,” says Chenxi Wang, vice president of Forrester Research. “I don’t think the nature of the problem changes, rather than how easy it is now for data to be recorded and transmitted and accessed. That really gets people up in arms.”

Even though Google Glass will not debut until next year, West Virginia state Rep. Gary Howell (R) introduced a bill late last week that prohibits its use while driving. While Delegate Howell says people should “have no expectation of privacy in public space,” he does worry that it presents a heightened safety hazard while driving. He says his bill is just an extension of the no-texting legislation his state passed last year.

“I can see the problem with someone driving down the road and watching a YouTube video or dictating a word document, and there is nothing in our code to cover it,” he says. “Let’s get a discussion started on this.”

According to Google, the glasses allow users to not just record pictures or videos, but they can interact with other users using real-time video, access GPS services and airport and weather information, dictate text messages, translate foreign languages, and pull up answers to common questions. The interaction pops up for display on the lens, projected by a device affixed to the right side of the frames. Even with that device, the glasses are reportedly lightweight and look no different than any other eyewear.

Federal lawmakers are watching the product's development closely to scrutinize how far the device might push privacy boundaries, especially if it integrates components like digital facial recognition.

“A lot of people are excited about Glass, but I don't think people are excited about a situation where a stranger can identify them, by name, by simply looking at them on the street,” Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota said in an e-mailed statement to Adweek last month.

“Google made a principled decision to make facial recognition an opt-in feature for its social network, Google+. So far, they have not built facial recognition technology into Google Glass. I think this shows a real thoughtfulness on Google's part, and I hope the company continues to think about the privacy issues raised by Glass in this way,” he said.

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