August 9th, 2013

Tech and Privacy Advocates Clash Over Possibilities for Google Glass


Internet giant Google’s latest venture, a computer worn over the eye like conventional glasses, is sparking debate between privacy advocates and tech champions.


While the new device is presenting new opportunities for users to more seamlessly integrate the power of technology into their everyday life, the possibility of abuse has skeptics, and even Google itself, worried.

Glass opens doors for hands-free journalism

When Chris Barrett, documentary filmmaker and founder of, wore his Google Glass to a fireworks show in Wildwood, N.J., he walked into a journalistic moment when he captured on video a fight on the boardwalk and subsequent arrest. In this moment, Barrett discovered an unexpected and potentially revolutionary advantage Google Glass might provide to citizen journalists.

“This video is proof that Google Glass will change citizen journalism forever,” he wrote on his YouTube page.

Unlike with a traditional handheld camera or even a smartphone, Google Glass can make it difficult to see that a person is recording anything at all. “If I had a bigger camera there, the kid would have probably punched me,” Barrett told Elise Hu of NPR. If Barrett had used his cellphone, he would have much more likely to have been noticed.

This revelation means a lot for journalism; people can get footage they would normally not be able to obtain if there were situational awareness of camera coverage by the people being filmed. In addition to the potential trove of raw, unplanned footage, Google Glass could allow journalists in war zones to shoot footage with Glass while still having full use of their hands to protect themselves. Also, with the shrinking budgets for journalistic pieces, the ability to shoot and report simultaneously could be critical for the future of journalism.

Glass’s low profile concerns privacy advocates

Despite all the advantages seen by journalists, privacy advocates are concerned about whether this method of discrete filming could lead to a common violation of privacy. When lawmakers in the House of Representatives expressed concern about whether Google Glass fell within their privacy standards, Google responded in a letter saying, “For photos and video, users press a button on the arm of Glass or say, “take a photo,” or, “record a video”. These, and other built-in signals, in turn help other people understand what Glass users are doing.” They go onto say that they are, “thinking carefully about all of this feedback” as they consider the next steps in product distribution.

On its end, Google has tried to limit the type of software used on Glass in an effort to show the public it’s concerned about privacy. However, citizen hackers have found ways to re-engineer Glass in ways that make Google nervous.

In a recent interview with NPR, hacker Stephen Balaban created a program for Glass that can automatically recognize faces: not a standard feature.

“Essentially what I am building is an alternative operating system that runs on Glass but is not controlled by Google,” he said.

When Google first found out what he was doing, they changed their terms of service to ban facial recognition apps. But the larger issue remains that the technology could be appropriated in new and uncomfortable ways, even if it doesn’t come from Google, unleashing limitless ways to use Glass.

With technology getting smaller, easier to use and more widely available, Google Glass is part of a trend of concern over whether technology is getting so advanced that privacy is becoming nonexistent. As in the case of Google and making Glass compatible with their privacy policy, tech and internet companies face growing challenges ahead in balancing the advancement of great technology and complying with people’s right to privacy.

— Compiled by Aileen Graef for NewsHour Extra

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