Google Glass is essentially a phone in front of your eyes with a front-facing camera. A heads-up display with facial recognition and eye-tracking technology can show icons or stats hovering above people you recognize, give directions as you walk, and take video from your point of view. Many say that the Google Glass does not raise any new privacy issues, but merely rehashes existing ones in a more prominent way. For example, strangers can already secretly record you on a subway or Mitt Romney during a private speech and post it on the Internet. We already keep devices on our person at all times that monitor our location, and we give permission to a large number of apps and web services to collect and share our personal information. So, what's left? What real differences does it make that the device that does all this is now in front of your eyes?
Well, here's three major ones:
1. Glass accesses your subconscious:
The nature of a phone is that we have to pick it up and then swipe and click on things to make requests to the device. Sometimes, there are apps in the background, but we generally have to make a conscious decision to use our phones.
Google Glass, on the other hand, tracks your eye movements and makes data requests based on where you're looking. This means the device collects information without active permission. Eye movements are largely unconscious and have significant psychological meanings. For example, eye movements show who you're attracted to and how you weigh your purchase options when shopping. Even creepier, it can even show if you're lying or telling the truth.
This is a first for consumer technology. Because eye movements are largely subconscious, Glass will quickly learn a significant amount of information that you don't know about yourself - much more than a phone could learn. It will be collecting, sending, and receiving information when you're not thinking about it - there's no clicking or swiping. Eliminating that brief bit of choice when information is collected destroys Glass users' control over the personal information we share. The transition into Glass essentially allows a device to access a new level of our thought.
2. You'll become a snitch:
Did you pass by two people shaking hands on the street? You might have revealed a drug deal to the police.
Police are increasingly resorting to digital information to catch criminals, sometimes finding hot spots for crimes before they even occur. The New York Police Department is beginning to use big data, which combines information from 3000 surveillance cameras, license plate readers, radiation detectors, 911 calls, arrest records, crime reports, and files of data on individuals' personal characteristics from tattoos to limps. This data is put together to predict crimes and catch criminals. Similarly, ShotSpotter is used in 70 U.S. cities and gathers aggregate data to predict criminal events. Expect law enforcement to add some sort of information collected from Glass devices to the complicated algorithms designed to locate criminals.
What about the police getting access directly into what you see? This would be a new level of wiretapping, in which police would have get a warrant to as well as overcome some constitutional hurdles. Still, seeing that Google complied with 93% of the 6,321 government requests of private user information in the second half of 2011, it seems that it won't be far-fetched for the police use your eyes (or at least the information collected from it) as part of the "search" in search and seizure. By the time Glass is released, law enforcement may also have new technology and information sharing methods that could use your Glass to put your hoodlum friends in jail.
3. You lose everything if there's a breach:
How many of you will turn off your Glass while punching in your PIN? How about when a person's credit card is visible from the edge of your vision? How about when opening your bills, filing out tax information, or filing out a health form? Remember that computers can recognize numbers and letters blazingly fast - even a passing glance as you walk past a stranger's wallet can mean that the device on your face learns her credit card number. All of this information can be compromised with a security breach, revealing both the information of the one using Glass and the people they surrounds themselves with.
Security breaches occur on phones frequently, often without the user ever being aware of it. The FTC recently brought charges against Android phone manufacturer HTC for having a serious security hole in 18 million smartphones. Hackers with access to your Glass could rob your apartment by knowing when you're not home and where you keep your spare keys, gain access to your PIN and account numbers, and watch your fingers as you type in your passwords to other accounts on your computer. With this information, they could take every cent you have and e-mail your scandalous pictures to your boss. Worse, not all security breaches are committed by technical computer hackers. Simply attaching a tiny spy camera purchased online to the Glass gives access to nearly the same information.
It's likely that Google will take steps to avoid such issues, but seeing the sheer amount and variety of information that could be compromised, we should expect that solutions to privacy issues will lag behind the technology. Google is currently figuring out "the perfect level of obtrusiveness within an omnipresent Internet connection."
An exact set of features for Google Glass has not been released. However, we can expect the above issues to arise with even a basic implementation. Currently, select consumers and developers are testing Glass for $1,500 and it is expected to be released to the public in 2014. One bar has already banned Google Glass from its premises to protect its patrons' privacy.
For those of you in New York City on April 17th, join students and privacy professionals for a free legal panel on mobile privacy. RSVP at www.nyls.edu/mobileprivacy.