Google Glass Foes Highlight Rising Privacy Concerns


Six European nations are challenging Google’s privacy policies it emerged on Tuesday—just after the announcement that its privacy director was stepping down. Later this year, when Google Glass hits the market, privacy issues are already emerging as Google’s wearable tech, estimated retail price $1,500, brings seismic change to the scientific landscape and to what’s possible with personal computing.

Google, on the defensive, argues that its already-filled “Glass Explorer” program of Google Glass public beta-testers “will give all of us the chance to be active participants in shaping the future of this technology, including its features and social norms.”[more]

True to its name and making a point, the 5 Point Cafe in tech-forward Seattle has preemptively banned the device’s use, while other opponents are gearing up for a political fight. “I actually like the idea of the product and I believe it is the future, but last legislature we worked long and hard on a no-texting-and-driving law,” said Republican Gary Howell, West Virginia, who is proposing a ban on the device.

“It is mostly the young that are the tech-savvy that try new things,” Howell added about traffic safety concerns. “They are also our most vulnerable and underskilled drivers. We heard of many crashes caused by texting and driving, most involving our youngest drivers. I see the Google Glass as an extension.” 

“We are putting a lot of thought into the design of Glass because new technologies always raise new issues,” Google defended its controversial product in a statement, arguing that the glasses offer “tremendous potential to improve safety on our roads and reduce accidents.”

The search engine giant says it will offer turn-by-turn navigation using voice commands to promote a hands-free driving experience—already a concern with Google’s self-driving cars—but off-road, privacy activists aren’t convinced.

“If the government installed CCTV cameras and microphones everywhere, all feeding information to a central control room you would probably characterise it as a privacy risk,” notes the StopTheCyborgs anti-Google Glass campaign, which is distributing t-shirts and window stickers for businesses. “Is it any better if it’s run by a corporation and the devices are attached to people’s heads?”

The group is asking for restrictions and options such as Google glass or surveillance device free zones. ;“We are not calling for a Government ban on wearable tech like glass. Rather we want to encourage individual people to think about the impact of new technologies, to set bounds on how technologies are used proactively negotiate their relationship with the future. We want people to be selective adopters.”

“Everyone knows when you are holding up a cell phone you are recording, but hardly anyone knows what Google Glass is, and very few people know when the light is on that it is recording,” commented Kade Crockford, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Project.

“In the same way we have developed etiquette for smartphones … people are going to have to have new kinds of etiquette related to technology in terms of Google Glass,” she added. “I can’t predict what that will be like…but people don’t often respect people in other ways already. So I don’t know how Google Glass will change all of that.”

Against this backdrop comes news that Alma Whitten, director of privacy at Google, is stepping down after two and a half years in the post, 10 years with the web giant. Whitten was appointed October 2010 after two massive privacy breaches at Google: accusations of unauthorized use of data from Wi-Fi networks via its Street View cars and shuttering of its Buzz social networking platform deemed rife with privacy flaws. Multimillion dollar fines were imposed.

Google Glass privacy issues now pass to Whitten’s successor, Lawrence You, a company engineer for eight years, who will oversee a privacy and security team with hundreds of staff. “There is no privacy ombudsman at Google,” commented Chris Soghoian, technologist and policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union to the BBC. “Perhaps there should be.”