Google Glass Alarms Lawmakers

Members of Congress want answers about the device and its privacy implications.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 17, 2013

3 Min Read

Lawmakers want answers from Google CEO Larry Page about the privacy implications of Google Glass. On Thursday, eight members of Congress sent a letter to Page asking how Google intends to protect public privacy in the face of Glass and whether Google intends to implement facial recognition technology in its computerized eyewear.

Had our worried government representatives attended Google I/O, they might have been reassured by some of what Google representatives had to say about Glass. At a session titled "Fireside Chat with the Glass Team," product director Steve Lee offered his reassurance that Glass has been designed with privacy in mind.

"From the beginning, the social implications and social etiquette of Glass have been at the top of our minds in how we design and develop the product," Lee said, noting that this applies not only to Glass wearers but to the people around them.

[ Would you use Google to pay bills? Read more at Google Lets You Send Money With Gmail. ]

Lee dismissed concerns about Glass being used covertly to capture images and video. Google's engineers, he said, designed Glass so that it provides "a very clear cue to people around you when glass is active: the display lights up, not only for me but others can see that as well." That's not something that can be said about miniature or covert cameras, mobile phones with cameras or cameras with a telephoto lens.

Even so, a few Glass users among the many at Google I/O demonstrated disinterest in public perception by entering restrooms while wearing their devices. Knowing that Glass was not recording didn't make the obvious presence of a camera where cameras are not typically welcome any less awkward.

While it may be that Glass can be hacked so that the act of recording isn't evident, Lee said, "Our design is to ensure the display is active when glass is active. That will be part of our [forthcoming Glass Developer Kit] and our policy. Applications won't be permitted that do that."

It's not entirely clear how much permission will matter when it comes to Glass. Glass can be hacked and rooted. And Google showed developers how to do that: In a separate session on Thursday, Google engineers provided instructions on how to install Android apps or Linux on Glass.

Glass developers, however, do not really need Google's guidance to hack Glass. Earlier this week, Lance Nanek, a software engineer for HTC, described in a blog post how he was part of a team that implemented proof-of-concept facial recognition in a Glass app for medical professionals.

While Google has experimented with facial recognition in Glass, Lee said, "It's not currently in our product plans." That said, he allowed that a truly compelling use case would make the technology more acceptable.

Whether Lee's assurances can erase the memory of Google's gathering of open Wi-Fi data remains to be seen, particularly when Google's foes benefit from keeping that memory alive. The Congressional inquisition about Glass specifically cites Google's 2010 collection of Wi-Fi data as a rationale for probing Glass-related privacy issues.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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