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.
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.
Electronic surveillance laws, both on the federal and state levels, were first established to protect telephone wiretapping and later extended to cover data technologies, particularly mobile phones. But data from the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington show that the scope of those laws differ by state, such as whether or not it will expand to include mobile devices, if it covers video or audio or both, and how many, if any, people being recorded need to provide their consent.
Then there is Vermont, which to date has no law on its books addressing surveillance, although the state Supreme Court has established that residents in the state have the expectation of privacy in their homes.
Benjamin Wright, a Dallas attorney who specializes on cyber-technology issues, says the speed in which the digital realm moves will make it impossible to regulate.
“We’re living in the Buck Rogers age and have all this science fiction technology politicians didn’t comprehend when they wrote a number of these laws,” Mr. Wright says.
The burden should be on Google and other companies to set limits or safeguards involving its use. “These problems are ubiquitous in our society and the answers emerge slowly. You end up with this tremendous field of gray in front of you when you try to ask what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says.
Digital-rights experts say that the recording elements of Google Glass are likely protected under the First Amendment and that mobile recording is essential for journalists and activists, as evidenced by the "Occupy" movement, which captured images of brutality by law enforcement.
“This kind of technology has been empowering for people, and it’s really important that we can preserve these uses at all times,” says Rebecca Jeschke, an analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
What worries her about Google Glass is that it represents a more-refined tool for Google to learn about the interests and movement of its users.
“Google already knows too much about me. I’m more concerned about third parties, whether it’s Google, Yahoo, or Apple, knowing about my habits and about my life. It’s much more important” than the glasses, she says.
That concern is echoed by a new website, StoptheCyborgs.org, launched this month to protest Google Glass.
“Even if the user is not recording video, audio for their own use, it may still be being collected and processed in the cloud in order to display contextual information using image, object, face, voice identification, and speech recognition.... There will be no space in which you can escape your online profile, and the system will be controlled by a small group of corporations,” the website states.
Ms. Wang of Forrester Research says that, because technology is always pushing boundaries that are considered traditionally acceptable, or even legal, lawmakers are expected to modify existing laws to protect consumers. But a price is paid if regulation comes down too hard.
“They do need to be on the consumer side, so consumer privacy goals are somewhat guarded by the laws and regulations, otherwise the corporations will do anything,” she says. “However, there is a delicate balance because you don’t want to be too restrictive, so there won’t be any innovation.”