These days, even some usually techno-friendly people have their hackles up about the potential of Google Glass to surreptitiously record video or take pictures. I've heard more than one tech savvy friend bring up "the creep factor," the ability of a weird guy to secretly record you.
Sure, Google Glass has the potential to be a new trick for creepsters, but when you look at some of the devices available today for spying -- even a conventional camera with a telephoto lens or a smartphone -- Google Glass seems pretty tame by comparison, especially as it's glaringly obvious someone is wearing one.
Several years ago on a trip to New York City, I stopped by The Spy Store. If you want to be paranoid about people recording you, check out the devices in this store, all designed to clandestinely record video or audio. You want to record people without them knowing? There are better ways than Google Glass, trust me -- and for a lot less money.
Yet people seem fixated on this one aspect of Glass.
I spoke to Thad Starner, who has been working on wearable computers since the 90s, and is director of the Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech, and also a technical lead/manager on Google's Project Glass. He told me that Google has actually worked very hard to create a transparent device, one that always gives you cues when people are using it.
When the team was creating Google Glass it made privacy a big part of the design decision-making process, Starner said. Engineers need to consider four key factors when designing a wearable device:
Magnifying Google Glass
Sarah Price from Google X, wearing the current model of Google Glass, shows a photo of Thad Starner with the first prototype.
- Networking (connecting to the Internet)
- Power and heat
"They are all first class design considerations," he told me, "and any change you make to one affects the others." By making privacy a first-class design principle, it helped the team think about these other design factors, Starner added.
Glass was designed to be a transparent device, he said. First of all, the biggest clue is someone is actually wearing it -- so you see it. When the person interacts with it, they give voice commands or physically touch a button to take a picture. You can actually see when the device is operating reflected through the glass. Everyone is acutely aware of the device because of these social cues (as SNL made fun of this weekend).
Google has been moving slowly with Glass, precisely because it's a new type of device and the company wants to determine what's socially appropriate, Starner explained. At first, internal personnel used them only at home, then at work, and finally in the outside world. The Explorer Team (of which I will be part) is the next step.
By taking this approach, Google is creating a living lab to determine the issues before making it widely available commercially. "When you create a living lab and you have people wearing these things long enough, you [begin to] see what the issues are," Starner told me.
In terms of practical application, Starner points out there are physical limitations on the device. The default video recording time is 10 seconds, and that's designed to save battery life. If you record video non-stop, you'll run out of battery quickly, just as you would on your smartphone. As designed in its current state, this is not appropriate for life-logging (constant recording), as some have speculated.
Which brings us to the latest issue: that a hacker could control the device and see what you're seeing. This obviously has the potential to be a much more serious issue, but the programmer who hacked Glass told Charles Arthur at the Guardian that this hole could be closed if Google simply allowed people to protect the device using a biometric approach such as using patterns in the iris, or voice, or by entering a PIN.
And as Starner told me, "If somebody broke in, and tried to turn on your camera [or control any aspect of the device], you would wonder why it's on." It would be apparent to you that someone was controlling the device other than you.
In response to a direct question about the security issues, a Google spokesperson emailed me this response: "We recognize the importance of building device-specific protections, and we're experimenting with solutions as we work to make Glass more broadly available."
Starner is careful not to minimize privacy concerns, however, saying it's important that we have this conversation before the devices are widely available. But we must avoid hysteria and distraction in the discussion and understand that this is still very much a work in progress, he noted.
The fact is this device and many others like it are coming, no matter what people think about them. We have to develop social rules around interacting with them now, keeping in mind there are many ways to record a conversation without your knowledge if that's someone's true intent -- and that creepsters are going to creep, no matter what.
Once we get past that, maybe we can begin to discuss what this device can really do and if it's actually a decent piece of technology or just the beginning of a long product development process.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.