Attorney General George Jepsen today joined privacy advocates in questioning Google over its new wearable Glass computing platform.
Google Glass is a new computing platform that is worn similar to a pair of eye glasses. A small screen is mounted on the right side of the device that is visible only to the wearer. It also has a camera built into the frame that is capable of recording video and taking still pictures. An on board microphone listens to voice commands to control the unit and is also used for video conferences over Google’s Hangout infrastructure. It connects with the wearer’s Google account to present data based on the user’s location and information stored in Google’s email and other services.
“Despite mounting concern among privacy advocates,” Jepsen wrote to Google in a letter released today, “there is very little available information regarding the types of data that will be collected through this technology from either users or non-users. Nor, to my knowledge, has Google yet publicly revealed whether or how it intends to disclose privacy risks, obtain consent for the collection of data or otherwise minimize or address issues.”
Jepsen acknowledges that the new device does what smartphones already do. He is concerned that some functionality of the Glass platform can conduct those activities more discretely than a hand held device does.
The Attorney General is specifically concerned over Google’s facial recognition technology, and whether the product will be able to identify people to the Glass user without their consent. Google has stated publicly that the product does not have this feature now and will not provide this data in the future without a user’s consent.
The open nature of the platform might allow other third party developers to implement the technology. Nevertheless, the third party provider would need to have an extensive database of photos and the names that go with them, data that’s only owned by big social networks like Google’s Plus service and its competitor Facebook. Neither company has indicated they will provide such data and both have given users the ability to opt out of the facial recognition feature on their services. Jepsen raised questions regarding Facebook’s facial recognition in 2011, prompting the company to run ads directing users how to opt-out of the feature.
Jepsen’s other concern is a feature that is rumored to be built in (but not activated) on the Google Glass hardware that allows for operating the device with eye movement instead of voice commands. By default Glass requires a user to command the device verbally before recording video or taking a picture. But it’s possible that “jailbreaking” the hardware to override Google’s controls and allow the installation of unauthorized applications could enable the feature and allow for more discrete recording.
See how Glass works:
But Glass itself is quite hard to miss. A debate among geeks erupted on Wired magazine’s website last month when the technology publication likened it to a modern day pocket protector and questioned whether it will ever be a viable mass market product in its current form. Currently the product costs $1,500 and is only being made available to a small group of customers who were picked through a contest to purchase one. Users are restricted from re-selling the device.
And those looking to record video discretely don’t have to look much further then Amazon, where this this $10 faux key fob can record video at a similar resolution far more discretely.
One thing is for certain: Glass will challenge Google’s open approach to hardware and software development. The company differentiates its mobile operating system from its chief rival Apple by touting its openness and development policies that are largely free of the many restrictions Apple enforces on its products.