Google glasses and privacy

March 9, 2013 |

As with drone technology google glasses is technology that has been known about for some time (see Take a peek through Google glasses (photos)) but regarded as experimental and almost an abstract concept.  No longer.  As the recent Zdnet article Google Glass: You’ll kiss your privacy goodbye, and you won’t mind a bit makes clear it is viable and on the cusp of public usage, with a release date expected in 2014.

The privacy issues are clear.  The solution is less so.  What is necessary is the need for the legislature to provide a framework within which the technology can operate but provide some privacy safeguards and, at minimum, control of the use of the data obtained through the use of the glasses, stored and possibly cross matched against a data bank.  The Privacy Act is an imperfect means to doing so at the moment.  Common law and equitable actions would provide limited assistance to an individual.

The article provides:

Google Glass is causing quite a stir, and rightly so. However, the search giant’s networked specs are creating a buzz as much about the threat to privacy they pose as about the new era of wearable tech they look likely to usher in.

The specs are yet to be released, but Google promises they will let users browse a map, check their mail, record a video directly from the headset, without lifting a finger. But will Google Glass’ ability to (almost) silently take photos or videos using the glasses make the general public uncomfortable? After all, there are some conversations or situations you’d rather not have a Google Glass wearer inadvertently record and upload to YouTube.

Think about it for a minute. These glasses can instantly capture and store every move of everyone around the person wearing them. Remember that drunken argument you had with your partner? Well, now Google Glass will mean you have no possibility of forgetting it. If it’s entertaining enough, or you’re well-known enough, the video of that argument could well be on YouTube before you get home. Do you do a lot of business on the phone while out and about or while sitting in coffee shops? Will you continue to, if you know that every call could be recorded by the stranger sitting at the table opposite, staring innocently at the picture on the wall behind your head?
The issues of Google Glass, however, go one step further than this: instead a man holding a video camera that you can clearly see, with Glass you won’t even know it’s happening. What if when the seemingly inevitable happens and a security flaw is found that lets an intruder take control of Glass — in that situation, it’s plausible that even the owner won’t know what they’re recording.

While wearable — or even embeddable — tech such as Google Glass is still in its infancy, will these privacy concerns impact its future prospects? Are the technological advances enough to outweigh any erosion of privacy?

No huge change?

Question over “whether it’s intrusive or not is one of these things that feels more intrusive now than it actually is. It’s not a giant leap, or a huge change from things you can do now with a phone or with other things, except it’s a little bit more invasive and there all the time, potentially,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at the University College London (UCL), told ZDNet.

While Google Glass replicates functionality already found in smartphones today, people are more wary specifically because it is glasses that are being used to augment reality, Chamorro-Premuzic said.

“Symbolically it feels a lot scarier than it actually is, because it’s what you’re seeing and glasses are meant to be there to enhance reality. But, instead of enhancing reality, it seems to enhance people’s observational powers into worlds that we maybe think should remain private.”

While Chamorro-Premuzic is largely at ease with the idea of Google Glass he also noted an interesting quirk in the British psyche that may help Google Glass to succeed.

“In Britain people have this really interesting ambivalence where on the one hand we like to be very private creatures and everybody minds their own business. We don’t reveal much or ask much to others, but on the other it’s also a very ‘nosey neighbour’ nation” he said.

“The Big Brother series were more successful here than anywhere else, but that’s because we feel so repressed about being observed or observing others that when we can let go of our inhibitions a little bit we take it to the other extreme. I wouldn’t be surprised if they [Google Glass] did quite well here.”

Google Glass: Evolution not revolution

While we are only at the emergence of devices such as Google Glass, the hardware is symbolic of the wider issue of trading our privacy and personal information for convenience. Every time someone signs up for a free email service or a social networking site, they are swapping convenience for privacy. With Facebook blasting through the billion user mark in the second half of 2012, the amount of people happy to make that trade shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

“People will tell you that they are a lot more worried about privacy than they actually are. Google Glasses are no different to someone who has dark shades and is looking at you and you can’t see them [looking]. On the other hand, if a person jumps on a train or tube and stops making eye contact or looking at people around them but then goes on Facebook to check out other people and their profiles, that’s kind of the same. This kind of intrusive element that technology has introduced occurs more online than offline,” he said. “That might be the most progressive thing about Google Glasses — it’s [this intrusive element] getting closer to the physical reality because it’s out there, where our eyes are.”

Ultimately, Google Glass will succeed: technology will win out over the potential privacy concerns in this case. The use of email, maps, cameras and everything else on smartphones is already far too engrained in our lives to stop that functionality being put in wearable tech, but when it does we’ll collectively be agreeing that the possibility of being filmed in public without our knowledge is just fine.

Senator Cory Bernadi, a person who has courted controversy in the past has highlighted privacy concerns.  His comments, reported in Google Glass is ‘the end of privacy’: Australian politician are not controversial.  He sounds a legitimate concern, by the time honoured means to taking the worst case scenario as a real outcome, about the technology that outpaces the law and seeks to change a societal norm, that we should have a zone of privacy and not be the subject to surveillance of such an ubiquitous nature.  What needs to be born in mind is that Google’s corporate atitudue is far from privacy friendly.

The Guardian in Google Glass: is it a threat to our privacy? (as good a headline as any, and better than most) has run a story on the subject in quite some detail. It highlights Google’s light touch (or no touch) privacy policy and its constant attempt to blur the public private divide (to the extent it sees such a divide existing).

The article provides:

Opposition federal senator from South Australia Cory Bernardi has claimed that Google’s new smartphone-like glasses called Google Glass will lead to the end of privacy, with everything filmed and trackable.

The outspoken senator, who last year resigned from being Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s personal parliamentary secretary over comments that he made comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality, said in his “Common Sense” blog that he has serious concerns about the surveillance capability of the experimental Google Glass (GG) technology.

“You see, GG comes with the ability to record video and audio of everything that happens throughout your day. No longer is there a need to grab an iPhone and click to capture the moment. GG can do it all day, every day, automatically,” he said.

“That might be fine if you are the user, but what if you are an unwitting victim of such recording? A single GG wearer in your favourite restaurant could capture your image and your conversation without you ever knowing. The footage would be stored on the Google servers, your voice could be translated into text, and with the use of facial recognition, could be actually matched to your Google profile. You might even find it on a social media site somewhere for millions of others to see.”

Bernardi said it “could mean the end of privacy as we know it”, and while admitting this was an “extreme scenario”, he said that everyone has things they want to keep from the public record.

“Whether it be a conversation with our spouse, a personal failing, medical records, or a youthful indiscretion, the advancement and availability of cutting edge surveillance technology like GG could radically change all of that,” he said. “It’s one reason we should question whether some of the great advancements in technology are designed to serve us or serve the interests of others.”

Google Australia declined to comment on Bernardi’s blog post.

The Google Glass technology is still in its early days, and Google only made the technology available to developers last year, and a limited pool of competition winners in the next few months. A wider launch is not expected until 2014, and it is unclear what privacy features Google may include to allay public concern.

Bernardi’s comments come as a parliamentary committee made up of Coalition and Labor politicians is considering a vast number of potential amendments to telecommunications security legislation that could potentially see telecommunications customer data stored for use by law enforcement for up to two years.

While some Coalition members have expressed reservations about the potential privacy implications of giving police access to more data about the public’s internet use, including Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, others, such as Phillip Ruddock, have expressed support for the expanded police powers. Bernardi has not made his views on this known.

While Bernardi’s party is in a position to win the next federal election in September, Abbott has previously indicated that he would not reshuffle his cabinet, meaning that Bernardi would not be in any ministerial position for at least the beginning of an Abbott government.

The Guardian has also covered the story in Google Glass: is it a threat to our privacy?  As good a headline as any on the subject.

It provides:

The tech giant’s ‘wearable computing’ project is now being tested by volunteers, meaning you might already have been surreptitiously filmed and uploaded on to Google’s servers. How worried should you be?

If you haven’t heard about the excitement around Google Glass – the head-mounted glasses that can shoot video, take pictures, and broadcast what you’re seeing to the world – then here’s an idea of the interest in them. Last week, someone claiming to be testing Glass for Google auctioned their $1,500 (£995) device on eBay. Bidding had reached $16,000 before eBay stopped it on the basis that the person couldn’t prove they had the glasses. (They weren’t due to get them until last Friday.)

Google Glass is the most hotly anticipated new arrival in “wearable computing” – which experts predict will become pervasive. In the past 50 years we have moved from “mainframe” computers that needed their own rooms to ones that fit in a pocket; any smartphone nowadays has as much raw computing power as a top-of-the-line laptop from 10 years ago.

The next stage is computers that fit on to your body, and Google’s idea is that you need only speak to operate it. The videos that the company has put online – and the demonstrations by Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, who has been driving these imaginative leaps – suggest you can whirl your child around by their arms, say: “OK, Glass, take video!” and capture the moment. (To activate Glass you need to tilt your head, or touch the side, and then say, “OK Glass, record a video” or “OK Glass take a picture”.) The only other way to get that point of view is to strap a camera to your head. Brin has already appeared on stage at a TED conference wearing his Glass glasses (will we call them Glasses?) and looking vaguely like a space pirate. He has described ordinary smartphones as “emasculating” (invoking quite a lot of puzzlement and dictionary-checking: yup, it still means what you thought). And yet people are already beginning to fret about the social implications of Glass (as it’s quickly becoming known). The first, and most obvious, is the question of privacy. The second is: how will we behave in groups when the distraction of the internet is only an eye movement away?

David Yee, the chief technology officer at a company called Editorially, tweeted on this point the other day: “There’s a young man wearing Google Glasses at this restaurant, which, until just now, used to be my favourite spot.”

Yee’s worry was that the young person might be filming everything and uploading it to Google’s servers (and a Google+ page). Which just feels creepy. It’s not a trivial concern. Joshua Topolsky, an American technology journalist who is one of the few to have tried out Google Glass – at Google’s invitation – discovered this directly. He wore them to Starbucks, accompanied by a film crew. The film crew were asked to stop filming. “But I kept the Glass’s video recorder going, all the way through.”

Still, you might think, where’s the harm? The thing is, though: this is Google, not Fred’s Amazing Spectacles Company. This is the company that has repeatedly breached the boundaries of what we think is “private”. From Google Buzz (where it created a “social network” from peoples’ email lists, forgetting that sometimes deadly enemies have mutual friends; it was bound over for 20 years by the US’s Federal Trade Commission) and the rows over Street View pictures, to the intentional snaffling of wi-fi data while collecting those pictures (a $25,000 fine from the US Federal Communications Commission for obstructing its investigation there).

And that’s before you get to criticism in Europe over its attitude to data protection (information commissioners grumbled last October that its unification of its separate privacy policies meant “uncontrolled” use of personal data without an individual’s clear consent.

For Google, “privacy” means “what you’ve agreed to”, and that is slightly different from the privacy we’ve become used to over time. So how comfortable – or uneasy – should we feel about the possibility that what we’re doing in a public or semi-public place (or even somewhere private) might get slurped up and assimilated by Google? You can guess what would happen the first time you put on Glass: there would be a huge scroll of legal boilerplate with “Agree” at the end. And, impatient and uncaring as ever, you would click on it with little regard for what you were getting yourself, and others, in to. Can a child properly consent to filming or being filmed? Is an adult, who happens to be visible in a camera’s peripheral vision in a bar, consenting? And who owns – and what happens to – that data?

Oliver Stokes, principal design innovator at PDD, which helps clients such as LG, Vodafone and Fujitsu design products, says Yee’s restaurant scenario is “concerning”. “The idea that you could inadvertently become part of somebody else’s data collection – that could be quite alarming. And Google has become the company which knows where you are and what you’re looking for. Now it’s going to be able to compute what it is you’re looking at.”

That, he points out, could be hugely useful. “Supermarkets and packaging companies spend lots of money trying to work out which packages you look at first on a shelf. Potentially, through Google Glass, they would be capturing that data as standard. That would be quite powerful – to be able to say why people buy things.”

Of course, the benefits wouldn’t accrue to the wearer. Google would sell the data (suitably anonymised, of course). And your smartphone already provides a huge amount of detail about you. Song Chaoming, a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston, has been analysing mobile phone records (including which base stations the phone connects to) and has developed an algorithm that can predict – with, he says, 93% accuracy – where its owner is at any time of the day (by triangulating from the strengths of the base station signals; that’s part of how your smartphone is able to show where you are on an onscreen map). He analysed the records of 50,000 people; the accuracy was never below 80%.

When you consider that Chaoming was only doing this in his spare time, and that Google has teams of people whose only task is to develop better algorithms to work out where a phone’s owner is, and what they’re going to do based on their past activity and searches, you realise that if you’re using an Android phone, Google probably knows what you’re going to do before you do.

The obvious objection to these concerns is that we’re used to being filmed; CCTV is part of life. Yee’s response: “Not 5,000 cameras a city – five million. Not 5,000 monitors – one.” Where the five million are the wearers of Glass – and the one monitor is Google, aggregating, sifting, profiting.

Yet we already live in a world where the boundaries of what’s private and what’s public are melting. The other day my Twitter timeline came alive with someone tweeting about watching a couple having a furious row in a cafe; the man had had multiple affairs, the woman had had a breakdown. Their unhappiness was being played out in public, though the cafe wasn’t strictly a public space. If either used Twitter, they might have found themselves (or friends might have recognised them). And Twitter’s content is retained and searchable through plenty of web services.

Social media such as Twitter, and the ubiquity since 2003 of cameraphones (and now of smartphones that not only have still and video cameras, but can also upload their content immediately) means we’re more used to the snatched photo or video that tells a story. Without it, we wouldn’t know the true circumstances surrounding the death at the G20 protest of the newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson.

What if everyone who had been there had been wearing Google Glass (or similar) and beaming it to the web? Would the police have behaved differently?

Google doesn’t want to discuss these issues. “We are not making any comment,” says a company spokesperson. But other sources suggest that Google’s chiefs know that this is a live issue, and they’re watching it develop. That’s part of the plan behind the “Glass Explorer” scheme, which aims to get the devices into the hands – or rather, on to the faces – of ordinary people (and which enabled one member of the trial to putatively auction their Glass).

“It may be that new social norms develop with Glass, where people develop an informal way of showing that they’re not using it – say, wearing it around their neck to signal they aren’t using it or being distracted by it,” said one person who has spoken to Google staff on this, but who has to stay anonymous. “One of the reasons they’re doing Explorers is to get feedback on these things, as well as the devices.”

The other big question about Glass is: how will we behave with each other? My own experience with a Glass-like system, of wearable ski goggles, suggests that distraction will happen quite easily. That system, from Recon, has a lens in the top right that shows data such as your speed, altitude, and even ski-resort maps (useful in whiteouts). It was very easy, while standing and talking to someone, to glance up and read something off the screen. Being present and not-present became almost reflexive, and that was with only one week of use. Yet at the same time, the display wasn’t overwhelming. Concentrating on what was in front of me wasn’t hard, when required.

Carolina Milanesi, smartphones and tablets analyst at the research company Gartner, says: “Interestingly this [distraction element] is the first thing I thought of – not that Glass was giving you something that phones cannot give you, in terms of sharing or accessing content, but that they do it without letting others realise you are doing anything. In other words, with the phone, if I am taking a picture, the person I am focusing on will likely notice me; with Glass they do not.”

Despite her line of work, Milanesi is concerned about whether we get too deeply involved with our technology, to the exclusion of the real people around us. She has a different restaurant concern from Yee’s. In June 2011, she pointed out how smartphones change us: “Look around a restaurant or coffee bar at how many people, couples even, are sitting across from each other and they’re both looking down at their mobiles.”

Glass might change that for the better – though would you appear to be looking at each other, while really intent on your email or a video? Topolsky, who used Glass for some days, said: “It brought something new into view (both literally and figuratively) that has tremendous value and potential … the more I used Glass the more it made sense to me; the more I wanted it.”

He loved how text messages or phone calls would just appear as alerts, and he could deal with them without taking his phone out of his pocket to see who was calling. Walking and need directions? They’re in view. “In the city, Glass makes you feel more powerful, better equipped, and definitely less diverted,” he said. But, he added, “It might not be that great at a dinner party, or on a date, or watching a movie.”

Mark Hurst, founder of Creative Good, a New York-based company that specialises in improving customer experiences, comments, “Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take off the glasses (especially when, as it inevitably will be, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – and here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.”

Stokes points out that we’re already seeing body language change as smartphones – with their glowing screens – become more pervasive: the hunched walk that 10 years ago marked out a financial whiz with a BlackBerry is now seen on every pavement.

“I think there will be a pushback,” Stokes says. “Maybe you’ll have to have a lens cover to show you’re not filming.” He points out though that the present model seems to require voice control – “OK, Glass, shoot video” – and that this might discourage some users in public. “I’ve been watching for people using Siri [Apple’s voice-driven iPhone control]. I just don’t see people using it in public places. Maybe it’s too gadgety.”

“People will have to work out what the new normal is,” says Stokes. “I do wonder whether speaking and gesturing might be essentially banned in public.”

“At home my husband already jokes about me checking into [location service] Foursquare from the piece of carpet I am standing on,” Milanesi says. “How much more will we have of this now that it is made so simple for us? And the other side of the coin: how much are we going to share with others, and at what point will we have a backlash? When will it all be too much?”

By way of example of Google’s patchy commitment to privacy the LA Times reports, in Google nears $7-million settlement with states over Street View, on its impending settlement with US states regarding breaches of individuals privacy through its Street View operation.

It provides:

SAN FRANCISCO — Google is close to reaching a $7-million settlement with 30-plus states to settle allegations that its Street View mapping service improperly collected passwords and other sensitive personal data from home wireless networks, a person familiar with the matter said.

The final details were being worked out Friday. An announcement is expected next week from the states led by the Connecticut attorney general’s office.

The settlement is to be split among the states.

The states began the investigation in 2010 after the Internet giant revealed that its fleet of Street View cars had inadvertently collected personal data from unsecured wireless networks in more than 30 countries. Google was fined $25,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for impeding its investigation, but the agency said it was not clear that Google had violated federal wiretap laws.

Susan Kinsman, spokeswoman for the Connecticut attorney general, said: “Our only comment is that Connecticut is investigating Google Street View and that investigation is active and ongoing.”

Google declined to comment on the settlement.

In a statement, Google said: “We work hard to get privacy right at Google. But in this case we didn’t, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue.”

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