The advent of Google (GOOG) Glass establishes one incontrovertible fact and raises at least two unanswerable questions. The fact: Yes, you do look fairly ridiculous wearing it. The questions: Are we finally becoming cyborgs? And is this a good thing?
Glass is a computer that can be worn like a pair of spectacles, with a small screen above one eye. It can record video, audio, and location data. It can connect wirelessly to a smartphone so you can send text messages, check e-mail, make phone calls, and use maps without reaching into your pocket.
This is just the latest experiment in the burgeoning field of “wearable computing,” which could be worth $6 billion by 2016 and also includes such devices as Apple’s (AAPL) coming “iWatch.” In many ways, these technological advances are exhilarating. A few scarier uses are also becoming clear, however, and if Google and other technology companies won’t confront them directly, the government will have to.
One concern is that recording other people will probably get easier. There are plenty of spaces where furtive filming and recording would be unsettling. Never mind the bar or gym; as the Electronic Privacy Information Center notes, Google Glass “gives stalkers, harassers, and creeps the ability to take invasive photos of women in public without their knowledge.”
Unlike cameras, which must be raised and pointed, Glass may allow users to take photos merely by winking. No wonder bars, casinos, and strips clubs are preemptively banning the devices. Google will need to make it extremely obvious when someone is filming or recording. Even so, what’s to prevent a hacker from getting around such safeguards?
More worrying, what about all that data you’ll be generating—all that audio and video of yourself and others—which will be stored on Google’s cloud servers? Surely hackers will be interested in that, too. So will marketers. How will Google protect it?
Most disconcerting is the potentially sinister nexus of cloud data, social networks, and facial-recognition technology. Imagine, someday soon, a Glass wearer able to call up the Facebook (FB) and LinkedIn (LNKD) profile of everyone he sees on a bus—or starts a conversation with—simply by looking at them. With such concerns no doubt in mind, Google announced it won’t be approving facial-recognition apps for Glass “at this time.”
The larger question Glass raises is how to protect privacy in the age of wearable computing—and do so without unduly burdening legitimate innovators. The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights proposed by President Obama’s administration takes a big step in the right direction. It would start giving consumers a lot more control over the data collected about them and require much more transparency from companies that trade in personal information. If the White House is serious about protecting privacy, it should submit this bill to Congress as a legislative proposal.
In an ideal world, companies such as Google would help themselves by instituting privacy policies that don’t make a mockery of the term, and by being clearer with the public about exactly what data they’re collecting and why. Nothing in recent history, however, suggests this is likely to happen.