The Google Glass-wearing cyborgs are coming.
And if they're anything like this "Saturday Night Live" parody, you're going to see some very awkward situations in public very soon.
The glasses, which have popped up on morning talk shows and even in the shower of a well-known tech pundit, allow the user to see a display for text messages, photos, and even two-way video conversations--all right in front of her eyes.
But for businesses, Google Glass introduces a much more serious question than mere awkwardness--it could be a big privacy issue. When someone walks into your retail shop and starts recording the premises and your interactions with customers, do you have the right to ask him to stop?
Is This Thing On?
One of the most critical facts to know is that many states--including California, Nevada, and Florida--have two-party consent laws. Aaron Messing, a privacy attorney at OlenderFeldman, says these states have laws that govern how you can record in public places. If both parties have not consented, the recording could be illegal.
And, contrary to some early understandings, there isn't a red light that shines when someone is recording with Glass. That means, no one will know who is on camera and who isn't, and no one will know how the video could be used (or abused).
There's also a question about how Google Glass maintains privacy even for those who have consented to a recording. Georgia Tech contextual computing director Thad Starner, a Google Glass advocate who has advised Google, told me the product cannot automatically detect someone's face in public or track their location using GPS. But Google has not exactly elaborated on all of the features and the functionality of the device.
Bans Already in Force
Already several small businesses have decided to ban Google Glass. The 5 Point Cafe in Seattle won't tolerate the device. According to a New York Times report, Las Vegas will impose a ban (which perhaps isn't surprising, given that town's unofficial motto of "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"). The Huffington Post cites another slew of bars, strip clubs, and casinos that will ban Glass.
"Businesses are more likely to impose Glass restrictions than municipalities," says Carl Howe, a vice president for Research and Data Sciences at Yankee Group. "For example, many secure manufacturing facilities prohibit cell phones with cameras; such facilities would likely also prohibit use of Glass devices."
Most experts with whom I spoke said that, for now, the number of people who actually have Google Glass is a small blip. But that could change in the next few years, and businesses should be ready for the onslaught of public use. (Google declined to comment specifically about privacy but did mention there are at least 20 reporters who have them now, having signed up and paid a fee for the privilege at the Google I/O conference.)
New Era for Privacy?
To be sure, Google Glass is only the latest of a number of tech developments raising increasing concerns about the erosion of privacy. Smartphone cameras, Facebook, and Twitter, among other tools, have all contributed to the idea that personal privacy has become more of a gray area.
"No one I know ever voted for or opted into living in a 24×7 surveillance state," says Howe. "I believe most people would be shocked to discover that they are constantly being watched in most large cities and buildings. It isn't any easier to accept when the people doing the surveillance are your neighbors instead of the police. The private surveillance is worse, because it can occur in private spaces that public officials don't have access to."
My view: Google Glass will indeed lead to some early awkwardness in public. You have to speak commands, which is going to seem strange to both the wearer and passers-by. As more people start using the device, we'll probably get more comfortable with recording and taking photos. But privacy issues will arise: Businesses in particular won't know how the device is being used, and I predict we'll see more of them start to cry foul.