Miscellaneous 4 min. read

Google Glass – Are the Privacy Fears Justified?

Google has been celebrating the May 2014 public release of its Google Glass with a traveling road show that allows tech-heads to play with the wearable technology.

At the shows Google employees and early adopters known as Google Glass “Explorers” extol the virtues of the Internet-capable eyewear, which contains a built-in camera. However, the device has also come under criticism from people worried about potential privacy infringements. Read on to discover whether their fears are justified.

Bars & More Outlaw Google Glass Due to Privacy Concerns

At least eight bars in the San Francisco Bay area have banned patrons from wearing the Google Glass due to privacy concerns. It seems that the bans were enforced after one user recorded a short video when she was assaulted in a local bar called Molotov’s.

While a case can be made for using the Glass to create evidence against a violent criminal, witnesses disagree about who instigated the altercation. If the person not wearing the Google Glass was indeed the innocent party retaliating against a threat, the footage could be misleading.

While the management at Molotov’s, where the Google Glass is now banned, declined to make a statement, bar regular Ron Adams was keen to share his opinion of the devices.

Adams insists that Glass wearers are more offensive than smartphone users as “they can spy on people that people don’t know,” he told KQED News. “I’m cool right here under the radar and I don’t need nobody [sic] putting me out in space nowhere.”

The San Francisco Bay bars aren’t the only ones cracking down on Google Glass use either. Similar rules have been enforced in restaurants and cafes. Even when formal rules don’t exist, Google Glass users have faced a backlash from management and other patrons for wearing the devices.

What About the Privacy of Users?

Interest surrounding the Google Glass has the potential to put the privacy of its users at risk too. Noble Ackerson, a business strategist and early adopter, told CNET that more people take photos and videos of him wearing the device than question his own recording activities. Ackerson didn’t seem to mind the public interest, but surely it compromises his privacy just as much as he could compromise the privacy of others.

Do Real Users Want to Breach Privacy?

Google Glass owners acknowledge that their new device makes infringing on privacy easy, as they can record footage with a wink of an eye or the slide of a finger. Most insist that they don’t really want to.

“I was at Chipotle ordering once, and one of the workers kind of questioned me. ‘Are you recording right now?’” recounted Drew Madison, a mechanical engineering major who bought his Google Glass in December 2013. “I was like, ‘Why would I want to record you? You’re just making me some food.’”

Madison also reminds critics that the Glass’s recording function isn’t unique. Smartphones, which two-thirds of Americans have, are just one of the many portable devices that can film others. It’s debatable whether they can do it as discreetly, but the same capability is still there. If people aren’t using smartphones to violate the privacy of others, it stands to reason that Google Glass users would behave just as responsibly.

The Psychology Behind the Outcry

Whether smartphones and the Google Glass can potentially do the same thing seems to not matter. What’s interesting is that one was embraced by all sectors of society while the other has been met with fierce public backlash. Larry Rosen, a psychologist who specializes in technology, says that a perceived level of control may account for the wildly different reactions.

“People make a personal decision to check their smartphone or log in and check their social media accounts, but Google Glass is out of their control,” he told CNN. “They are not able to make a decision as to whether they want to be ‘on’ or ‘connected’ through someone else’s process, and they are concerned and unhappy that they do not have a say in the matter.”

It seems that people don’t mind giving up a little privacy when they choose to use social media, for example. However, they react against the idea that their privacy has been given up involuntarily. The Google Glass strikes a nerve because it appears more like an invasive surveillance than a smartphone, even if its capabilities are more like the handheld phone.

Signs of Recording

Critics of the Google Glass worry that users can record them without their knowledge. However, its users say that if critics know what to look for, they can easily tell whether the system is on. While Glass’ light isn’t external, it can be seen through the transparent screen when people are close enough.

Google Glass fans say that this actually makes their devices less intrusive. They argue that it’s more difficult to tell whether someone is recording with a smartphone, as they might be holding their phone up to read a web page or send an SMS.

However, it’s important to note that these comments come from Google Glass users who are already familiar with the wearable technology. They state that it’s easy to tell whether the Google Glass is in record mode “if you know what to look for,” but what if you don’t? Should the public be expected to be familiar with a device to gain peace of mind?

It’s been suggested that Google should add a blinking light to Glass to indicate to others that the device is in record mode. This would be a more obvious indicator, but it could bring more problems for Google. Will it lead the company to claim that viewing the blinking light provides “implied consent” for recording? Until the technology is instituted, it’s hard to say.

Google Glass and other pieces of wearable technology have the potential to infringe on the privacy of both users and other members of the public, but it’s worth noting that Google has also taken measures to limit the problems. Only time will tell whether these, as well as the responsible actions of Google Glass owners, are enough to calm society’s privacy fears.

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