The Google Glass Privacy Debate: What’s Real & What’s Overblown Hype

google-glass-240pxTo hear some people tell it, Google Glass is leading us down a path toward a world where every citizen is a walking, hidden spy, surreptitiously recording videos and photos of everything — and everyone — we see. What’s more, they’re afraid that those videos and images are being posted on the Internet for all the world to see, warts and all.

Some are afraid that Glass is auto-recording (or will) everything it can see or hear, and each word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of Glass will be available in Google’s search index.

These fears typically come from people that don’t know how Glass works. They’ve never worn it. And despite that lack of first-hand knowledge, they’ve decided that Glass is a privacy disaster waiting to happen.

The problem: Those folks aren’t contributing anything of substance to a discussion that needs to take place. Hysterical fear-mongering makes for good headlines, but it doesn’t advance the conversation.

In this latest installment of our Google Glass Diary series, I’d like to make the case that some of the privacy concerns with Google Glass are overblown, while others are very legitimate issues that we should be discussing. I’m not arguing against any discussion on Glass and privacy; I’m arguing for a more balanced and intelligent discussion than I’ve seen so far.

What They’re Saying About Google Glass & Privacy

A group of US Congress members sent Google a letter in mid-May with several privacy-related questions about Glass. Among other things, they asked

  • if Glass unintentionally collects data (they referenced the recent Street View wifi sniffing mess)
  • if non-users are also covered by Google’s privacy policies and protections
  • if Google Glass will support facial recognition technology
  • if Glass stores user data and, if so, how is it protected

Canadian privacy officials followed suit in mid-June with their own letter to Google on Glass and privacy. Among other things, they asked

  • how Glass complies with data protection laws
  • what data is collected via Glass and is that data shared with developers
  • is Google doing anything about the “surreptitious collection of information about other individuals”
  • how does Google plan to deal with facial recognition issues in the future

Beyond governmental questions, some businesses have banned Glass from their premises over privacy concerns. Numerous articles in recent months have covered how strip clubs, casinos, movie theaters and at least a couple restaurants/cafés are putting up proverbial “no Glass allowed” signs. (This NBC News article on the topic is pretty good.)

Consumer Watchdog, a group that’s been hammering Google for years over privacy issues, recently described Glass as “one of the most privacy invasive devices ever” and called on Google to give citizens a way to remove videos or photos taken of them by Glass users without permission from Google’s servers.


Even Google reportedly banned Glass from its own shareholders’ meeting in June! (The Consumer Watchdog quote is from a news release reacting to that news.) Word spread like wildfire — and plenty of laughter did, too. Reality check: All recording devices were banned.

In a recent UK survey, 20 percent of consumers said they think Glass should be banned completely due to privacy issues.

Clearly, there’s a lot of concern about Glass and privacy. Some of it is legitimate. Some of it is born of ignorance about how Glass works. And some of it sounds like nothing more than overstated hysterics.

Why Some Privacy Concerns Are Overstated

In its current form, the way Glass is built and the way it works makes some of the public fears over Glass little more than hype. Many of those fears center on the idea that Glass wearers will be secretly taking photos and recording videos of others. But consider this:

  • Glass goes into standby mode very quickly. And from there, it requires noticeable movement/gestures to be activated. You either have to reach up and touch Glass to activate it, or you have to tilt your head back (like “Randall Meeks” did in the hysterical Saturday Night Live skit that wasn’t too far from reality).
  • When Glass is activated, the user can only photograph what s/he’s looking at. There’s no quiet way to take pictures around corners or over walls like you could easily do with smartphones and small cameras.
  • The camera isn’t very powerful and has no zoom capabilities. When I’m taking pictures or shooting video, it’s hard to see people (and what they’re doing) unless they’re within 30-40 feet. A still photographer with a DSLR camera that connects to the internet is much more capable of violating someone’s privacy than I am when wearing Glass.
  • Photos and videos done with Glass aren’t uploaded publicly to the web, despite what some would have you believe. They are uploaded privately to Google+ via Auto-Backup and can be shared publicly from there. “Potential privacy violation!,” some scream. But that’s exactly how iPhone photos work with Apple’s “Photo Stream” app. (However, unlike Photo Stream, you can’t currently turn off the Auto-Backup feature on Glass. Google says that’s because Glass has limited storage space — 16GB, minus space for application information and software libraries — and it doesn’t want Glass users to lose their photos and videos or run out of space. I think Google should give users the option of turning off Auto-Backup for Glass, just like they can do when using iOS or Android devices.)

In a group of people, it’s almost impossible to activate Glass and take photos/videos without being noticed. Many of the concerns and scenarios that people are dreaming up about Glass could be applied just as equally to smartphones. Consider this:

A Glass vs. Smartphone Privacy Scenario

I walk up to you at our SMX East marketing conference with Glass on and join a conversation that you’re having. You might be worried that I’m recording video without your knowledge. There’s no red indicator light flashing, after all. Fair enough. But if I’m shooting video, you will see the Glass display cube lit up, and that’s a signal I might be recording video. Or I might not.

iphone-pocketBut what if I walked up to you and joined that conversation without Glass on, but instead with my iPhone tucked into my shirt pocket — like you see in the image at right.

Just like Glass, there’s no flashing red light there to let you know that I’m shooting video. I could record the whole conversation and you’d never know. With the smartphone’s superior battery life, I could record a lot longer than with Glass. And with its superior audio and video quality, it’d be a much better video than with Glass.

Or forget about the phone-in-pocket scenario. I could be holding my iPhone in my hand, down at waist level, and still be recording the whole conversation without your knowledge.

But you don’t hear anyone talking about the privacy dangers of smartphones that can shoot photos and video. Consumer watchdog groups aren’t calling for Apple and Samsung and other phone manufacturers to give citizens a way to remove photos that are taken of them with iPhones and other smartphones. You don’t see 20 percent of UK citizens saying smartphones should be banned. There’s plenty of privacy fear surrounding Glass, but smartphones are capable of the same things (and more) that are driving the fear.

(Despite the above, I do think that Google should add a small red light indicator that flashes when Glass is recording video, primarily to calm people’s nerves.)

Google’s Response on Glass Privacy

Google addressed Glass and privacy with a few brief comments during its I/O conference in May — when news of that Congressional letter broke.

It explained more in the four-page response to that Congressional privacy letter. Susan Molinari, Google’s VP for Public Policy and Government Relations, talked about the social cues that make it evident when Glass is in use.

Those social cues are laid out most clearly in a new Google Glass FAQ that the company has just published.

Q: What have you done to inform non-Glass users if a picture or video is being taken?

A: We have built explicit signals in Glass to make others aware of what’s happening. First, the device’s screen is illuminated whenever it’s in use, and that applies to taking a picture or recording a video. Second, Glass requires the user to either speak a command — “OK Glass, take a picture” or “OK Glass, record a video” — or to take an explicit action by pressing the button on the top of Glass’s frame. In each case the illuminated screen, voice command or gesture all make it clear to those around the device what the user is doing.

That FAQ contains the most comprehensive look at Glass and privacy — from Google’s point of view and in Google’s words — that I’ve seen to date. It’s a welcome addition to the privacy discussion, but I suspect Google will need to do much more about educating the public on the subject of Glass and privacy.

Privacy Has To Be Discussed

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Glass is free from privacy issues and that no one should worry about or discuss Glass this way. Quite the contrary. There should be — has to be — a discussion about Google Glass and privacy. But it needs less hype, less fear, and more balanced, rational conversation. A few things that conversation should include:

Facial Recognition

This is one of the hot-button topics with Glass and privacy. There are fears that Glass could allow wearers to learn information about anyone that its camera sees.

Google has already announced that it won’t approve any Glass apps that use facial recognition, and the new FAQ says Google isn’t planning to add the technology to Glass itself.

Glass doesn’t do facial recognition, and we have no plans to add it.

Prior to that statement in the Glass FAQ, Google’s policy has been that it “won’t add facial recognition features to our products without having strong privacy protections in place.” That obviously opens the door to someday allow facial recognition in Glass (and other Google products). So, this is something that needs to continue to be discussed.


Glass & User Data

The new FAQ addresses this topic in a couple different spots. It says that Google doesn’t always know what the Glass user is doing or seeing; it points to the company’s privacy policy when answering a question about what user data is collected; and it explains that apps specifically indicate what account permissions they need when being installed.

Not mentioned is this little-known fact: Searches that you do via Google Glass don’t show up in your Google account’s search history. As long as that’s the case, you could argue that Google stores less user data from Glass than it does from other devices and platforms.

Still, given Google’s history with user data and privacy (think back to the WiSpy and Google Buzz screw-ups, for example), this is a topic that needs to be discussed more as Glass and its app ecosystem develop.

Glass for Prescription Glasses

Yikes. This is going to get dicey. In that Glass FAQ, Google says it expects to release frames that will let users add prescription lenses to Google Glass.

Great news for glass (lowercase “g”) wearers! But just watch the privacy battles roll in left and right.

Casinos, for example, are starting to ban Google Glass, just like they also ban the use of smartphones while gambling. But if Joe Gambler is wearing Google Glass with his prescription lenses, will they tell him he has to gamble with less than full vision? Movie theaters are also starting to say “no Glass” just like they ban talking on phones and recording with smartphone cameras. Are they going to tell Sally Moviefan that she has to take her prescription Google Glass off if she wants to (try to) watch Iron Man 4?

Telling consumers they’re not allowed to wear prescription glasses because Google Glass is attached sounds like a recipe for trouble.

Current Privacy Laws

In the US, we have laws that give citizens a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and protect them from privacy invasions when such an expectation exists. I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it, that expectation doesn’t exist when you’re out shopping, at a sporting event or concert, or pretty much anywhere in public. Others have the right to record you — whether it’s with Glass or with any other device. (In Hawaii a couple weeks ago, I was perfectly within my rights to shoot a photo of a stranger sitting on a beach admiring the sunset.)

We’d all be well-served to remember this when we’re discussing Glass and privacy. If you’re out in public, the law already states that you shouldn’t expect privacy.

Final Thoughts

Glass isn’t the first piece of wearable computing. But it is the most mainstream, and that means we’re getting into new territory where personal tech is concerned. Glass already raises many new questions on privacy, and as time passes, there’s no doubt it’ll raise more — likely some questions that we can’t even imagine right now.

But that doesn’t justify the hysterics and hype about outlandish scenarios where Glass turns us all into walking spies, secretly recording every movement we make, and every movement the people around us make.

The reality is, on one hand, that Glass does have a number of safeguards built in and there are several ways in which it’s easier for you to be recorded by someone with other devices (digital cameras, smartphones) than by someone wearing Glass. On the other hand, there are legitimate privacy issues that we need to work through as more people begin to wear Glass.

As I said, I’m not dismissing all of the privacy concerns that Google Glass raises. I’m not dismissing the privacy debate at all. It’s a discussion that needs to happen. When it does, let’s make sure it’s based on real information and awareness, not on fear and hype.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features & Analysis | Google | Google Glass Diary | Google: Glass | Google: Privacy | Legal: Privacy | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Marketing Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Nikki Bowman

    did these actually get made? i seen on kickstarter, same glasses on for face book. alot of people funded this project and never received the glasses.

  • RandomPromotion

    Interesting article. There are several tries to solve the privacy issue out there. Might be an interesting topic for your next article…

  • Smallbiztrends

    Very interesting, Matt. I certainly agree that there’s a lot of overblown hype about privacy — it’s like with any new thing.

    My question is, once the novelty wears off, I wonder how popular Glass really will be?
    For example, I know how people have been crazy for tablets. But I also wonder how much of the huge sales upswing in tablets is being driven by people wanting the latest shiny object. Having had a tablet for a year, the novelty is wearing off a bit, especially as the limitations of what I can do with a tablet keep popping up. It’s great for entertainment and social media and quickly replying to email — not so great for other computing uses. Will Glass be much the same way?


  • Matt McGee

    I’m sure people will come and go as Glass users, just like you’re describing with tablets, or just like people switch from iOS to Android, etc. And many won’t be interested in Glass at all. (Smartphones have been around for the better part of a decade and they’re still only about 60% of overall US phone ownership.) With Glass, some will switch to whatever smartwatch is out, or some other device that we don’t even know about yet.

    I’m sure Glass will find its audience. It won’t be as big as the iPhone or latest Android device. (And the tech media will probably declare it a huge failure because of that.) Mobile phones were around for 15-20 years before they really became something that everyone needs to own. I imagine Google will be very patient with it.

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