Congress Demands Answers About Google Glass

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-05-19

Congress Demands Answers About Google Glass

Suppose you were at a cocktail party, and someone approached you wearing a strange-looking pair of glasses, one side of which had a thick aluminum frame. Then you notice there were no lenses on those glasses. Would you know from the outset that the person approaching was wearing Google Glass?

Perhaps more important, would you know that the person approaching you would be able to identify you by facial recognition, and by the time they walked up to you, they would know your name, your job, where you lived and how much you make? And would you know that your conversation was being recorded and that your photo, or whatever the wearer was looking at, could be posted online?

And if you did know, what would you do? Unless you know the full capabilities of Google's Glass project, you'd be hard-pressed to know. And if you didn't, how would you know to ask the person wearing the Google Glass headset not to record you? Chances are you wouldn't.

And even if you did know what Glass is, you might not be able to tell whether you were being recorded, whether the wearer was taking photos of you and what else the wearer was doing with the Glass headset. Worse, suppose the Glass-wearer were to show up someplace private, such as at your home, or in a restroom? Sounds creepy, doesn't it?

It sounded creepy to some members of Congress, too. On May 16, the Bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking some pointed questions about how Google planned to ensure that the privacy of users, and more important, non-users, was being protected. The members of the caucus noted a series of stories in the media that had emerged about Google Glass, particularly the ability to find detailed information about a person just by looking at them, and letting Google perform facial recognition and then providing all available information.

The letter noted Google's challenges with privacy in the past, notably the collection of data from private WiFi networks as part of the Street View project for Google Maps. The letter noted that Google had agreed to a payment of $7 million in fines for collecting the WiFi data. The question: What did Google plan to do to ensure that unintentional data collection wouldn't take place?

The document also addressed the protection of people who aren't participants in the Google Glass efforts. For example, it's not legal in some states to photograph or otherwise record people without their permission. The congressmen want to know what safeguards Google was putting into place to guard against the violation of privacy laws.

The letter asked about the use of facial recognition, how the subjects of data collection would be able to ask to see what was collected about them and how a person could opt out of having their data collected. The members of Congress also wanted to know how Google planned to limit information requests for private data and data from users, and whether the Glass device was able to store any data itself.

Congress Demands Answers About Google Glass

Initially, the Google Glass device was positioned as something that would provide information about something the wearer was seeing. So if you went to a museum, for example, Glass would display information about the item you were looking at. But since it would be impossible to screen out the people at the museum, it's inevitable that people would be caught up in the all-seeing gaze of Glass. From there, it's not hard to figure out how people who never agreed to have their personal lives displayed to Glass users might have their privacy violated.

While it's easy to dismiss such concerns, Google hasn't done anything to make such dismissal easier. Initially, the company tried to stonewall suggestions that its Street View project gathered private information from WiFi networks but ultimately was forced to admit that it had. Likewise, Google came under fire for ignoring its own privacy rules a few years ago with Google Buzz, a social networking platform. There, Google extracted information from contact lists and photos users had taken, and posted them on users' Google Buzz pages without permission.

While Google eventually apologized for its actions in regards to Google Buzz, the fact that privacy seemed to be only a secondary concern to Google is what's making Google a primary concern to others. What's worse is that one of the features Google built in to Glass was the need to use your hands to take a photo or record a video, making it obvious that you were doing so. Now, one of the first apps to appear for Glass is one that lets you do these things by simply winking an eye.

Google has until June 14 to respond to the inquiries by the caucus. But unless Google finds a way to ease everyone's fears, and that's unlikely given the company's "just trust us" attitude, you can expect some sort of regulation restricting how Glass can be used. You may also see privacy rules strengthened.

While this may be cold comfort when you look up as you're getting dressed in the locker room and see someone wearing Glass, at least you might have some recourse. If not, there's always that golf club in your locker.

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