The Google Glass genie can't be shoved back in the bottle

The Google Glass genie can't be shoved back in the bottle

Summary: Worried that Google Glass technology will fall into the hands of miscreants, ne'er-do-wells, perverts, and criminals? I hate to break it to you, but when it comes to cameras, a goofy head-mounted device is the least you have to worry about.


Digital cameras have been around for years, but Google Glass, which features a camera that you wear conspicuously on your face, seems to be generating quite a stir. The problem is, there's little point in focusing on Google Glass, and any attempt to ban or regulate the technology will be both pointless and futile.

There's no doubt that technology such as Google Glass changes the privacy landscape. Having millions of people walking around with cameras attached to their faces will certainly increase the scope for sneaky photos and video. The idea of this sort of technology finding its way into places such as public restrooms, amusement parks, and government buildings seems to be enough to cause a backlash against the technology, kicking off discussions about bans and legislation.

But what exactly would this achieve?

First off, we're surrounded by cameras that aren't under our control. Take, for example, the security cameras. These are everywhere, and we have little control over what happens to the masses of data being collected by them. These cameras are collecting sneaky snaps of us — and our kids — going about our daily business all the time, and they've become so ubiquitous that, on the whole, we don't notice them anymore. Next time you're out and about, have a look around you for the cameras that are watching you. You might be surprised how many there are. Or horrified.

Then there's the issue of all the cameras that we already carry around with us as part of devices such as smartphones or tablets, not to mention stand-alone digital cameras. I have five devices that have built-in cameras within arm's reach at this moment. My iPhone's 8-megapixel camera, while being nowhere near as good as a Canon 5D Mk III, is still a highly capable bit of kit.

People seem to be walking around with gadgets in their hands all the time, texting, Facebooking, and whatever. Many a time, I've seen someone walk into a restroom or some other awkward public place with smartphone or tablet in hand. Sure, it's a bit weird, but that's people for you. These people could — and I want to emphasize the word could — be, to take ZDNet's James Kendrick's colorful turn of phrase, "snapping images of my junk". They're probably not, but how would I know? Heck, for that matter, they could have their phone in a pocket or pouch and have it set to take shots while it's hidden away. I really have no idea, unless I challenge everyone I come across who owns a device capable of recording an image.

Try to come up with effective legislation — and, more importantly, effective enforcement — for that. Other than throwing the book at people who misbehave, I see little else we can do.

Then there's the issue of cameras that have been designed to be covert that are readily available. You can already buy tiny cameras, clocks containing a camera, a keyfob camera, a flashlight featuring a built-in camera, and, of course, sunglasses featuring a hidden camera. These are so cool that James Bond himself would be impressed.

And this is just the stuff that's commercially available. There's much more out there.

If you're worried about Google Glass because of what miscreants, ne'er-do-wells, perverts, and criminals are going to do with the technology, well, I'm sorry to have to break it to you, but these people can already get their hands on similar, if not better, spy kit. They don't have to wait for Google to turn Glass into a commercial product, because there are already boatloads of devices that incorporate covert cameras that are already freely available.

I can, as a parent, understand some of the concerns surrounding Google Glass. The idea of this sort of technology falling into the hands of a pervert is definitely unsettling. However, a knee-jerk response is going to achieve little. The fact of the matter is that the Google Glass genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of legislation, banning, or hand waving is going to change that.

At the end of the day, the majority of people are honest, decent, and trustworthy. Millions of years of evolution and experience has made us good at spotting those who don't deserve this trust, and people doing odd and suspicious things will, as a rule, stand out as being odd and suspicious.

While I believe that having a debate about the privacy implications of such devices is a good thing, basing that debate on hype — with lashings of "won't somebody please think of the children" thrown in for extra effect — is going to be counterproductive and ineffectual.

Topics: Google, Hardware, Privacy, Security

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  • Of course we can.

    If we are loud enough, Google will hear our concerns, and back away until those concerns have been dealt with, or when the time is right to release it.

    We're having a hard enough time with regulating the use of our cell phones to avoid serious injury, and even death. Now is not the time for a new gadget that can do the same. I don't need some idiot slamming into me on the freeway because he was too busy looking up info on the Chinese joint we just passed, etc.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Texting and driving

      I'm sure someone's going to say that these glasses will finally make texting and driving safe.

      The sad part of that is that they'll actually believe what they're saying.
      William Farrel
      • Ahem..

        Have you forgotten about google's self driving cars.
        Will Charles
        • LOL! Good point.

          Though in all honesty, which will be more affordable (likely to be purchased) by the average person?
          William Farrel
          • Probably both

            Do you assume that self-driving cars will remain prohibitively expensive for evermore?
            No, so they may well become mainstream.

            I forget the company but the second incarnation of their road-train-car was displayed at the shanghai motor show. We're moving towards it and sooner or later, we'll see them on the roads. The early stages will be difficult, with 'robot' cars and manual cars sharing the roads. Once we hit all driverless cars - that's the sweet spot.
            Little Old Man
      • Agreed

        This is true. These things, while neat, aren't really going to serve a practical purpose. I guess if you're just lazy and you don't want to take your phone out of your pocket to snap a vid or pic then whatever but these things are already failing.
        Jake Boone
    • So your argument is

      We ban anything that can distract people when driving? So drinks, food, kids, comics, phones..... the list is endless. Or is it only new things that could distract us with driving?

      I'd love to see how humans evolved if we all thought like you!
      Little Old Man
      • actually, yes

        I could go out to my backyard and fire a gun in the air 100 times and probably not hit anything. Doesn't mean I should be allowed to do it. We have all sorts of laws restricting unsafe behavior, distracted driving would be no different. Don't get me wrong - I don't give a whit if someone wants to skip the seatbelt and kill themselves, that's their choice. But when they decide to put me or someone I car about in danger, then yes I have something to say about that.
    • Its not the complaining to Google that will work so much...

      Its the fact that once you put a pair of these things on, people will see you coming and they will mostly avoid you like your the plague. Havnt you seen the way many react already when they see a stranger with a camera snapping shots. Many people are already cognizant of the fact they simply dont want to be in somebodies random snapshots.

      What happens when you see 100 different people a day marching about with these things on?? I can tell you right now, people will start saying "this is a bit much, I feel like Im being watched all the time, I dont want to end up in some Youtube video". The public isnt going to like it. Im telling you.

      This should be obvious. Its not about putting the genie back in the bottle or anything, its just about the public saying this is too much, these things are all over the place and I dont like it. I feel like Im being spyed on all the time, Im terrified of when the day comes I do something foolish and my video ends up on the internet.

      Why do you think people put up with security cameras in downtown areas. I can tell you why. Its easy. Its because theres not hundreds of people marching around the streets with them in plain veiw stuck to their face.

      This isnt some complex thing here, its obvious that if these things get to be well know, nobody is going to want to be around them.
  • Agreed. The majority of people are honest, decent, and trustworthy.

    The bad part is none of those people seem to be employed by Google.
    William Farrel
  • Wow people love hype

    All the comment are from people who think they aren't currently being filmed in every public place they go by someone with a Cellphone. Have any of you been on youtube? Anyone who would use the technology for creepy spying stuff already has several button cameras, shoes cameras, and night vision binocular. I am sure at least with these you can tell they have them on. You will never know how many times you have been filmed by miniature spy cameras. Regulations won't change the FACT that these cameras have been out there for YEARS. Reality is hard to deal with, but this is the world we already live (Google glasses or not).
  • Typos

    I hope you don't mind me pointing this out, but I ran into way too many typos while reading this article. I was not trying to edit it, but these kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. I get the feeling this article was written on a tablet or smartphone.

    Examples include:
    "...that aren't under out control." Correction: "out" to "our."
    "They're robably not." Correction: "robably" to "probably."
    "unless i challenge." Correction: "i" to "I."
    "spy kit." Correction: "spy kits."
    "...because there are already boatloads of devices that incorporate convert cameras already freely available." Correction: remove the second "already."
    "Millions of years of evolution and experience has..." Correction: "has" to "have"
    "is going to be counterproductive and ineffectual." Correction: "ineffectual" to "ineffective." (These two words do not have the same meaning, and "ineffective" should be the correct one in this case.)
  • No evidence it's different from anything else.

    "and any attempt to ban or regulate the technology will be both pointless and futile."

    There's no evidence to suggest it's any more or less bannable than any other device.

    And most people are willing to be reasonable if you ask for a bit of privacy.

    I think you're just looking for troll bait here.
  • just wate

    Don’t do any thing till you see your image in advertising, in a porn movie, and don’t do anything that my be misconstrued as illegal any where. Because then it will be to late. Beside you all know it is illegal in all states to record any ones voice and image with out permission? One or the other is OK but not both at the same time.
    • Voice yes, image no

      When out in the public square your picture can be taken legally by anyone, they just can't use it for commercial purposes without your permission.
    • How many cameras are in the public domain?

      How many times has anyone's image been used illegally to advertise porn or some other commercial product?

      See the correlation?

      You need to think through your arguments before typing them out in a hysterical haze. If you want to steal an image do you a) go out on the street and try and capture some shots, or b) go on the internet and steal one in a matter of seconds.

      I rest my case. Anyone would think google has invented the camera and the doomsayers think they will steal your soul.
      Little Old Man
  • It's all about the pervasiveness of the technology...

    Clearly, these sorts of privacy concerns have been around for quite awhile, so why all the fuss? While anyone can secretly capture pictures and video with existing technologies/products, this is largely the domain of a scant few. The big fuss is that Google Glass has the potential to be a mass-produced product that eventually becomes ubiquitous. No longer would we merely be concerned about the 1-in-a-million sicko who secretly takes video in a bathroom, locker room, etc. Our concern is that anyone and everyone will eventually be able to do this.

    It's a massive hurdle to prevent these privacy-challenging scenarios from arising, mostly because we're already past that point. While legislation might be able to slow "advancements" in technology like this, it absolutely can't prevent it. Taking a pessimistic view, we can see the future, and these privacy issues are likely to be an unfortunate byproduct of this advancement.

    Remember anonymity on the internet? Remember using a computer without a security product? Remember not having to worry about your passwords, social security number, or credit card #'s being stolen? Remember not locking your car or front door? Remember trusting your neighbors? All things of the past.

    The age of innocence is over. In order to survive in the modern world, we've had to make adjustments in our personal habits. We'll eventually have to make similar adjustments when privacy-challenging technologies like Google Glass become ubiquitous.

    Get ready... the future is coming... and fast. Some of it is great, but sometimes there's a cost to it. Assuming you don't live on a deserted island, be prepared to pay the price of living in the modern world... and prepare to adjust to it. It's not a matter of "if"... it's a matter of when.
  • Ban Google Glass and similar products

    Imagine the nice clear pictures of a muggers, rapists, murderers, terrorist boomers, accident witnesses, police brutality, even bullies, etc that such technology would so easily provide. I can certainly see why politicians are just falling over themselves to ban just such tech. Sure there's a down side somewhere if you look hard enough and long enough you can always find something

    The Google Glass Forum is now open at GoogleGlassForum dot net
  • Wonderful Imagination

    The recently publicized Google products like the driver-less cars, (robotic) wearable always-on cameras seem like efforts to convert plausible fantasies of Google bosses into reality. It should need more than this to create a practical product that will help the company succeed in the hardware arena.