Google Glass Isn’t A Surveillance Device

Fears about Google Glass's surveillance potential are, if not unfounded, at least a little misguided.


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A petition created late last week on the White House’s very serious petitions site requests that Google Glass be banned nationwide “until clear limitations are placed to prevent indecent public surveillance.” The fear articulated in the petition is that a Glass-wearer will be able to record without a subject knowing, even in potentially sensitive places like public bathrooms.

The problem with Google Glass as a potential privacy or security risk is much subtler and smaller than petitioners like this imagine. Google Glass records only what’s in roughly the wearer’s field of vision. That means that to record someone at a urinal, a voyeur wearing Google Glass would have to stand there and stare at that person, without moving, for the length of the video. Video quality, too, is not stellar; certainly not as good as video taken by your phone. And it’s a giant, hugely noticeable pair of spaceman glasses.

That said, it’s hard to get too angry at these folks for wanting to at least discuss the issue of surveillance. Google Glass is, I’d argue, a less efficient surveillance device than a smartphone, except for one thing: you don’t have to extract it from a pocket or bag. And it is dangerous to take too strong of a position that Google Glass is an innocent device constructed of sci-fi dreams and good intentions; I don’t think banning is really the right move, but it’s certainly important to talk about.

Is Glass moving us one step closer to constant surveillance? That largely remains to be seen; Glass is a very early platform, sort of like a beta version of the very first iPhone back in 2007. It has no apps, it can do only very basic first-party things, and while it’s something very new, we don’t really know how it’ll be used in the culture at large. Privacy advocates will and should make a stink about it; that’s the only way to prevent something scary from happening. Attention from these folks might force Google to adjust; I don’t see any reason not to include a blinking red “recording” light, for example.

Privacy advocates will and should make a stink about it.The petition uses the word “indecent” to describe the kind of dastardly surveillance that the government should be banning, which suggests sex or nudity. The greater risk is in something more subtle and less rooted in personal discomfort. Glass, remember, only records what the wearer is looking at. That makes it lousy for peeping toms, but much better for surreptitiously recording conversations, provided the person being recorded doesn’t notice the tiny reverse image of him/herself displayed in the little glass cube on the front of the device.

Glass is a much worse way of recording that kind of situation than, say, a traditional wire recorder comprised of a microphone and hidden camera, because it couldn’t be less hidden. But if Glass and the wearable computers that follow become mainstream, they’ll become inconspicuous. That’s what happened to smartphones; in 2006, if you placed a tiny glass and metal rectangle on the table between you and a guest while eating dinner, your conversation would be entirely about that. Now, it’s barely rude, and can record voice just as well as any standalone digital voice recorder.

This particular petition has, at the time of writing, four signatures. It needs 99,996 to reach its goal, and, um, it might not. Certainly it’s unlikely that the government will federally ban Google Glass. But if it gets Google to see things its way even a little, that’d be a success.