Sixth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Through the Google Glass: The Ethics of Wearable Computers

  • AuthorKaren Dybis
  • Published Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
  • Comments1

Maybe you’ve seen them around town – those bold Glass Explorers whose easily recognizable high-tech eyewear distinguishes them from the rest of us.

While most would just pass by, there is a segment of the population that wonders and may even worry about what that Glass wearer is doing with his or her device. Are they recording us? Are they taking a picture? Can they see through our clothing like some sort of modern-day version of a comic book’s X-ray glasses?

Concerns about what wearable computers may or may not see has sparked debate, pages of online commentary and even a few notable physical confrontations, particularly along the West Coast in cities including Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco. While Google Glass has been around for about two years, it seems the conversation around it will go on long into the future.

For newbies, Google Glass is eyewear that includes a wearable computer. The Glass unit is attached to what appears to be a basic eyeglass frame (although Google recently upgraded these frames through a partnership with Luxottica, the owners of the Ray-Ban brand). Glass can be attached on either of the frame. Wearers can then communicate with the Internet via voice commands, and their requested information is shown on an “optical head-mounted display” or OHMD.

A Google division created Glass in hopes of creating a device that could gain widespread popularity. The company’s early prototypes were made public in 2012. The company’s beta testers, who are known as “Explorers,” were able to purchase a unit in 2013.

Glass allow the user to doing everything from take pictures with its camera to shooting videos to receiving directions to checking emails. Early users praised the products in the media; even “Time” magazine named it one of its “Best Inventions of the Year 2012.”

With any new technology, there are always tensions over how it should be used. Google Glass has been among one of the more controversial introductions, something observers say may be the result of its limited availability and, in some cases, jealousy over who was among the first “Explorers” to try it out. The next “open” public offering for purchasing Glass came April 15, and its available units sold out quickly, Google said via its social media sites. (This bundle costs $1,500 plus tax and includes Glass, charger, pouch, mono ear bud and your choice of a shade or a frame for no additional charge.)

But, Glass proponents and detractors agree, with smartphones, wearable computers and who knows what coming down the pipeline, the discussion about whether taking pictures or video of people without their consent is a worthy one. As the general public gains access to such devices, potential implications surely will grow, generating its own apps, websites and the like to show off the good, the bad and the ugly they capture.

And things will change – rapidly. In the past year, the company has released nine software updates, 42 Glassware apps, iOS support, prescription frames and more, all largely shaped by feedback from its Explorers.

Although there are suggested “rules” on how to use a Glass device, how each individual approaches the technology will determine both its future and the personal safety of the person using it. In other words, Google gently recommends that you don’t act like a “Glasshole,” the wearer is the ultimate judge of how to use the eyewear and when.

According to Google’s website, “Respect others, and, if they have questions about Glass, don’t get snappy. Be polite and explain what Glass does and remember, a quick demo can go a long way. In places where cellphone cameras aren’t allowed, the same rules will apply to Glass. If you’re asked to turn your phone off, turn Glass off as well. Breaking the rules or being rude will not get businesses excited about Glass and will ruin it for other Explorers.”

In March, Google also issued “Top 10 Google Glass myths,” a list that attempted to clarify Glass’s effects on the wider world. Privacy and ethical issues were among its topics, including concerns that “Glass is the perfect surveillance device.”

The article noted: “If a company sought to design a secret spy device, they could do a better job than Glass! Let’s be honest: if someone wants to secretly record you, there are much, much better cameras out there than one you wear conspicuously on your face and that lights up every time you give a voice command, or press a button.”

According to current users, a Glass wearer must speak a command (such as, “OK, Glass,” as demonstrated in Google’s online tutorials) or touch the device to start taking pictures or recording video. It is fairly obvious to both the user and the person being photographed because the Glass wearer has to look directly at someone to take a photo or video of them.

Much of the public commentary started in February after Sarah Slocum, a San Francisco-based tech enthusiast and writer, said via social media and media reports that she was attacked verbally and physically for wearing Google Glass in a bar. A second incident took place in mid-April when 20-year-old journalist Kyle Russell said he, too, was attacked as he walked to a San Francisco train station. Russell told news outlets that he believed the woman who snatched his Glass off of his face was bent on destroying it. The device was rendered useless after the incident, he said.

Most of the words you hear from Glass users and their run-ins with the general public are negative. “Worried” seems to be the most common word used when they discuss the reactions everyday people have to their unique eyewear.

Ari B. Adler is an avid Glass Explorer, receiving his eyewear in December 2013. Adler is the Press Secretary to Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger and Director of Communications for the Michigan House Republican Caucus. He advocates for its use in essays on Michigan’s news sites and shares his personal experiences on his blog site.

While he notes that he wishes Glass could do more or do it better, Adler said he is smitten with the technology and hopes that more people will join him – as soon as they get over their presumption about how it works.

“I am in a unique position because of my job in the Legislature, so you can imagine how people wondered what I was recording or not and I got a lot of questions at first – based on public misinformation – about live streaming everything all the time, which of course is ridiculous,” Adler said in an interview with me.

Author Brenda Cooper, who lives in the Seattle area, said nearly all of her interactions with people about her Glass and status as a Glass Explorer have been positive.

“Most people are curious. A few are not, although when I show it to them or explain it to them, they generally stop being worried,” Cooper said.

Cooper noted that she thinks about where she chooses to wear her Glass. Her goal is to find places that enhance the interactions she seeks rather than harm them. So she makes a point of wearing it to tech events, science fiction writers’ groups or with other wearable enthusiasts. She also puts it on when she’s walking her dogs or going out to public parks

However, she avoids Glass in theaters, particularly performance or movie houses. Business meetings are another no-no. She also prefers to leave Glass at home in restaurants unless the other diner is a Glass Explorer as well.

Her personal rules mirror those that Google itself recommends. She said she has basically “no interest in pictures of random strangers,” and she believes few other Glass Explorers do either. “If I get one on accident, I just delete it,” she added.

“I always ask before taking a picture that’s clearly a picture of an individual. I might take group shots of parks or events which have people in them, and then I don¹t ask since it would be just too difficult and invasive to bother people to ask,” Cooper said. “Pretty much I treat it the same way that I treat a cellphone – and it would be far easier to take surreptitious pictures of strangers with a phone.”

People’s concerns about privacy aren’t really rational, Cooper says. Glass cannot be left on without completely draining its battery, she noted, and she ponders what she would do with all of that footage generally.

“We’re surrounded by cameras in stores and on streets and in people’s hands. There are cameras in so many places that most of us in urban environments are on camera more often than not when we’re out of our houses,” Cooper said. “I think it’s a bit of the fear of the unknown. Glass is the first truly different user interface to come along in a while, and I think that new things frighten some people.”

Whether Glass is an elitist item with its $1,500 price tag remains debatable, Cooper added. But its relatively high price may be part of the problem. Plus, having that distinctive eyepiece on your face combined with people’s irritation with the 24/7 world of connectivity may play into the fears.

“People are naturally wary of things that are exclusive,” Cooper said. “Google is huge now, and I think the worry about big corporations causing damage affects some people¹s view of Glass. … [Google] did a nice thing with the Glass Road Show over the last few weeks. Opening Glass to more people with the open sale [in April] was good. The more Google signals positive things about supporting Glass, the better.”

Limiting the kind of applications Glass uses or personal limitations on certain functions such as facial recognition also will help, Cooper believes.

“For example, I want facial recognition, but only on a limited basis, like something that will work for my social-media contacts. I have no interest in having information about strangers or in strangers having information about me – I’d find both rather creepy to be honest,” Cooper said.

Perhaps Google and its early adopters were too aggressive in trying to show off how “cool” they were to have the first versions of the product. Maybe the rest of the world was too eager to show how little we collectively cared. How the two haves/have nots get along in the months and years to come are likely to determine whether Glass can become ubiquitous like its developers hoped it would.

Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, Corp! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.

One Response to “Through the Google Glass: The Ethics of Wearable Computers”

  1. Karol Nowak says:

    When I first learned about the Google Glass in 2013, I felt pretty excited to obtain one in the future. I am the kind of person that is fascinated with new technology, and for me, what particularly enticed me about the product was how it offered a new way to take pictures and record video.

    Two years later, here I am thinking still thinking about the product’s recording options, but after learning more about privacy this past semester, I am starting to feel a little worried. Sooner or later, the number of people of owning Google Glass would be significantly higher than it is now. Because of its wearability and features, it can be hard to determine whether or not a passerby wearing Google Glass could be recording something or not, an interesting point Karen Dybis offers early in her essay.

    The Google article briefly discussed, “Top Ten Google Glass Myths”, explains that companies could design better spy devices than Google Glass considering such devices can have “much better cameras” than what the glasses provides. Sure, you have to say, “OK Glass, start recording,” in order to start video capture, but you could be walking by someone who already gave the command. Furthermore, from the online advertisements I have seen about this product in the past, the glasses carry a 720p, so it’s pretty clear the product will produce high-quality images and videos. Long story short, Google Glass is a product that could easily be used as a spy device even if surveillance-producing companies “could do a better job than Glass”. It should also be worth mentioning that anything recorded via Google Glass could be sent as information to Google, so it also brings up the question of whether people feel comfortable offering personal information to a large cooperation to be used for advertising purposes, similar to the concern of sending heart-rate information to Apple via the Apple Watch.

Leave a Reply