Google Glass Stirs Up Privacy Debate in D.C.

Google says it's still too early

Several stories are popping up on news sites stirring up privacy panic over Google Glass, a sort of wearable smartphone. While the glasses look relatively unassuming on the user and won't be out for several months, a lot of people are beginning to worry about whether Google will be able to track where you are, what you're looking at, what pictures you're taking and what you're recording, in addition to all the usual information that Google tracks (or shares) across smartphones, websites and email.

It's not just the user who might be worried; it might also be those nearby. It's hard to tell if a Google Glass user is taking a picture or recording. One Seattle bar and diner, The 5 Point Cafe, has already banned the glasses. The March 5 posting has already nabbed 528 "likes."

Playing up those fears is akin to a sci-fi movie. A website called Stop the Cyborgs has sprung up with its stated mission to "stop a future in which privacy is impossible and corporate control total." 

Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor at the City University of New York's journalism school and the author of What Would Google Do?, has called the Google Glass privacy dust-up a "techno panic." He explains that we at one point were highly fearful of smartphones and cameras too, but have gotten beyond it.

Jarvis wrote in a blog post, "How will we deal with the Glass problem? I’ll bet that people wearing Glass will learn not to shoot those around them without asking or they’ll get in trouble; they’ll be scolded or shunned or sued, which is how we negotiate norms. I’d also bet that Google will end up adding a red light—the universal symbol for 'You’re on!'—to Glass. And folks around Glass users will hear them shout instructions to their machines, like dorks, saying: 'OK, Glass: Record video.'" 

Google is under a 20-year consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations, so it's a good bet the company will run its privacy policy by the agency to make sure it doesn't run afoul of regulators.

Congress is also watching. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has hauled Google in front of his subcommittee on privacy technology and the law, is reserving judgment.

"A lot of people are excited about Glass, but I don't think people are excited about a situation where a stranger can identify them, by name, by simply looking at them on the street," Franken said in an emailed statement to Adweek. "Google made a principled decision to make facial recognition an opt-in feature for its social network, Google+. So far, they have not built facial recognition technology into Google Glass. I think this shows a real thoughtfulness on Google's part, and I hope the company continues to think about the privacy issues raised by Glass in this way." 

To be fair to Google, there's never been a high-tech gadget like Google Glass and certainly no social mores to go along with it.

"It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cellphones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time," a Google spokesperson said in a statement.