For Some, Google Glasses Raise Privacy Concerns

As the launch of the latest interactive technology creeps closer, discussions about how the public will adapt have started to surface.

By | Boston Daily |
Photo via Google.com

Photo via Google.com

Just a decade ago, people around the country worried about their personal privacy as cell phones and portable electronic devices started featuring small cameras, allowing users to easily snap photos of anyone, anywhere, at any time. Now, almost 10 years after camera phones hit the mainstream market, a new portable device is striking a similar nerve, and it’s raising issues about the future of public privacy and how consumers adapt to new technologies.

Later this year, Google is expected to introduce Google Glass, a hands-free device shaped like a pair of glasses that responds to simple voice commands and hand gestures to complete tasks like capturing video and giving directions. It’s a tech-lover’s dream, but already, questions are arising about how the device will impact peoples’ personal space.

“I think that it’s certainly very different from cell phone cameras,” says Kade Crockford, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Project. ”[O]ne of the obvious reasons being that people already wear glasses regularly, and putting computers inside of them with cameras is clearly very different.”

Crockford says Massachusetts law bars people from secretly audio recording others, which may make Google Glass an especially tricky product when first introduced to a mass audience. “Everyone knows when you are holding up a cell phone you are recording, but hardly anyone knows what Google Glass is, and very few people know when the light is on that it is recording. People [recording] should be careful to state very clearly what they are doing,” she says.

Like most technology, according to Crockford, citizens will adapt their own social norms as the market changes over time and consumers shift from smartphones to other hands-free devices, like Google Glass. “In the same way we have developed etiquette for smartphones … people are going to have to have new kinds of etiquette related to technology in terms of Google Glass,” she says. “They will have to work out for themselves as [Massachusetts] residents what kinds of privacy norms and privacy etiquette we are going to expect from one another and develop culturally. I can’t predict what that will be like…but people don’t often respect people in other ways already. So I don’t know how Google Glass will change all of that.”

Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst for Boston-based Abine, says she has heard a lot of talk about privacy concerns related to Google Glass in the office setting and other everyday environments. “If you have someone walk into the average startup with white boards and sensitive data everywhere, that person could be transmitting a photo back to some database,” she says. “Those concerns will transmit to regular people, too. If you’re a person on the street, you are going to have to assume anyone wearing Google Glass could be filming you … it could be completely surreptitious, and you wouldn’t know. They could turn anyone wearing them into a walking surveillance camera without anyone else knowing.”

Clubs, movie theaters, and other private areas will also face problems, she says. “I wouldn’t want to go out and say it has no utility, because it obviously does, but it’s like real-life science fiction. And science fiction has some really bad privacy scares.”

However, Google insists that its product will change the industry for the better, rather than merely introduce a new method of disrupting the lives of others. In a statement to Boston magazine, Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow says the company is “thinking very carefully” about how the product will be designed before it’s in the hands of the masses “… because new technology always raises new issues.”

Where some might be concerned about being secretly recorded or photographed, the company says most actions are either completed by voice command or hand gestures, so the chances of doing something discreetly are minimal. Google designed the product based on how users currently utilize technology, and the engineers also experimented with the etiquette surrounding the devices by using them at Google headquarters to be sure the right kind of social cues and privacy protections are in place.

Acknowledging that new types of technology tend to drudge up new types of questions, however, Google rolled out a demo initiative called the “explorer” program, in which 8,000 people in the United States will try out the technology long before its launch. Mike Volpe, CMO at HubSpot in Cambridge, is one of the people selected and will likely use them in Kendall Square, he says. Although Volpe has yet to get his hands on the product, he says he doesn’t expect the glasses to raise too many eyebrows when it comes to privacy concerns. “I think it’s one of those things that whenever a new type of technology comes out, it’s met by excitement by many people, and sometimes fear by many people. I don’t know how [Google Glass] will be that different than having a cell phone … but my whole life is on my phone. I don’t know that it’s actually that different. So I am excited,” he says.

“I think in any population there will be people who love it, and people who hate it. I’m not sure how it will be regarded, but I hope it is embraced. I am hoping Cambridge and Boston will take a position on innovation and encourage more of this. I have a kid, and he does hilarious things all day long, and even though I have my phone near me most of the time, to have a device even more accessible when he’s being totally hilarious would be cool.”

While supporters of tech and innovation (like Volpe) and other industry professionals who can stand to benefit from Google Glass have high expectations for the product, some people have already started to battle the openly public use of the product, long before it hits the shelves for a broader consumer market.

Earlier this year, a group called StoptheCyborgs.org was specifically founded “in response to the Google Glass project” and other similar, emerging technologies. Besides encouraging people to print fliers and post them around their respective cities in an effort to boycott some of the Google product’s features, the group says on its website that “… the aim of the movement is to stop a future in which privacy is impossible.” While they are not proposing an outright ban of Google Glass, members of “Stop the Cyborgs” say they would like restrictions, such as asking businesses and office settings to become “Google glass or surveillance device free zones.”

The group says on its website:

We are not calling for a Government ban on wearable tech like glass. Rather we want to encourage individual people to think about the impact of new technologies, to set bounds on how technologies are used proactively negotiate their relationship with the future. We want people to be selective adopters.

In some cities, such as Seattle, business owners have stood behind the group’s sentiment about using the Google glasses in public, going as far as banning them before they even hit the mainstream market. But in Cambridge, where Google has local headquarters, some bar owners don’t believe they will cause a problem. “I can’t imagine it would be something I would have to ban unless it became an issue. People come in with smartphones and they are able to take pictures all the time,” says John Adams, owner of Flat Top Johnny’s in Kendall Square. “I think a lot of people have changed their tolerance of privacy issues over time about the way the Internet is, with street cameras on every street corner … it doesn’t seem like something that would be a problem.”

Beyond the privacy concerns that have piqued the interests of Internet groups and civil liberty advocates, lawmakers in parts of the country have said Google Glass could pose as a threat to the driving public, much like texting and driving has led to legislation to ban the use of handheld devices while behind the wheel. But like their careful stance on the subject of invading the personal space of others, Google representatives have also taken the driving factor into account.

“We actually believe there is tremendous potential to improve safety on our roads and reduce accidents [with Google Glass]. As always, feedback is welcome,” the company said in a statement.

Want to see what it’s like to use Google Glass? Below is a video that was released by Google earlier this year.