Glass and Privacy

August 2, 2013

By Saad Anjum

By now, most people will have heard that Google is developing a gadget known as Google Glass, an eyeglasses-like, wearable computer that features a heads up display. Glass is intended to be the next step in the evolution of the smartphone by making it wearable and unobtrusive.  This allows the user to be more fully engaged with and through the device.

Thus far, Google has only made Glass available to a lucky few though a lottery competition (#ifihadglass) for testing. Although the device is still in its testing phase of development, it appears very promising. One thing that has been generating a lot of interest is the ability to record and share first person experiences in real time—as seen in Google’s skydiving demo. While smartphones are already well on the way to replacing cameras as video recording devices, Glass adds the convenience of hands-free use. Also, unlike recordings done with a smartphone held conspicuously aloft, it will be harder to know if a Glass wearer is actively recording.

Along with its potential to become incredibly popular, Glass has already aroused some heightened concerns about privacy. There are already plenty of places that ban the use of recording devices in general, and, even before the device has become available to the general population, several places have already specifically banned Glass.

In addition, West Virginia delegate Gary Howell raised safety concerns, and introduced a bill to ban the use of the device and any similar form of a heads up display while driving in the state, seeing Glass as a potential distraction while operating a vehicle.

If (or when) wearable computer devices like Glass succeed in becoming ubiquitous, it will certainly bring some challenges. In a world increasingly filled with smartphones and surveillance cameras, these may not be unique challenges, but the attributes of these sorts of devices are likely to change the playing field, with not only more hard to spot cams trained in any direction, but also a quick and easy path from individual device users to online sharing.

The potential challenges become greater when you consider combining the functions of Glass with other expanding technologies and you have access to: growing social networks (Facebook, Google Plus), facial recognition and the growing identity database, audio to text converting, cloud storage, and increasingly refined search capacities.

Now consider how these challenges will play out in specific challenging environments, such as in a hospital, where, for example, someone using Glass could inadvertently or surreptitiously record people receiving medical attention. This could present a serious challenge to protecting patients’ private and protected health information, as even just the recorded presence in a particular department could say volumes about that individual and his or her health.

If devices like Glass replace phones, it’s hard to imagine remedying this problem by banning from hospitals, as they are also exactly the sorts of places where these sorts of devices will, for so many reasons, be vital.

Again, despite differences in things like ease, speed, scope, this is not an entirely new type of threat to privacy. A visitor to a hospital could violate a patient’s privacy through old-fashioned spoken gossip without any electronics in sight (“You won’t believe who I saw when I went to visit my Aunt…”). Maybe efforts to address privacy challenges won’t require entirely new responses either.

Saad Anjum is a undergraduate bioethics intern at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a writing seminars major at Johns Hopkins University

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Alan Regenberg
Saad Anjum

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