Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer recently held its write-on competition for the Fall 2013 semester. Students were given a suggested topic involving the potential legal implications of Google’s latest wearable tech product: Google Glass. Four articles will be published over the next two days demonstrating the various ways in which the latest and greatest in technology can impact society.
Google Glass is the latest innovation in personal electronics. Google Glass functions like a normal pair of glasses, but is controlled through touch, eye movements, and voice control. Users can record videos, take pictures, and access the internet, along with many other features normally reserved for a smartphone or computer. Google Glass has not hit the mainstream market, but in a beta test, Google has distributed a small number of glasses to testers, prompting public privacy concerns despite potential benefits.
Google Glass has substantial benefits, most notably for those with disabilities.
Google Glass’s revolutionary technology allows users to access the internet through eye movements or voice command, without disturbing them from the task at hand. Consumers who want to take a picture or video of their child, look for directions, or find instructions, do not have to stop, pull out, and look down at their smartphone. Now, with Google Glass, they can continue exactly what they were doing and will have access to all the information they need. For instance, by wearing Google Glass, cooks can look at recipes without ever having to look away from their cooking or encounter the dilemma of having to touch their recipe with dirty hands.
Google Glass has substantial benefits, most notably for those with disabilities. Glass will give those who are not able to use normal touch electronic devices full access to technology which they did not have access to before. On June 6, 2013, Mignon Clyburn, Interim Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), remarked (pdf) at the M-Enabling Summit that Google Glass would be a great step for those who are disabled. For instance, law student Alex Blaszczuk, a quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down, was able to test Google Glass and stated that “With Glass, paralysis doesn’t have to be paralyzing.” During her test, Alex was able to take pictures and dictate emails and text messages through Glass’s hands-free technology.
Google has incorporated various privacy settings in the device to warn others when the user is taking a picture.
As is often found with bleeding-edge technological advances, Google Glass produces complex legal and social ramifications. The first main concern is the potential invasion of non-users’ privacy by those using the device. Many citizens fear such intrusions when others are able to take pictures or record actions without them ever knowing. Before Google Glass, when observers saw someone pointing their phone or camera in their general direction, they knew that someone was either taking a picture or recording them and could remove themselves from the situation, ask the party with the camera to quit filming them, or even alter their behavior.
These remedies are no longer readily available with Google Glass, however. Knowing whether Glass users are recording or taking a picture is more difficult because pictures or videos may be taken directly from a camera incorporated into the eyewear. To address the concerns of non-Glass users, Google has established various privacy settings for the device to warn others when the user is taking a picture, including requiring the user to touch their temple or speak to the device, causing the screen to light up.
Despite these precautions, testers have already been able to circumvent the general settings by taking pictures with the wink of an eye. Thus, if someone were to wear these seemingly normal glasses in the checkout line at the grocery store while a non-user is punching in their pin number, they would be unaware that their bank information had been photographed or recorded. This issue may eventually become unavoidable if people begin wearing Google Glass as their only pair of eyeglasses, without which they would not be able to see.
Searches could extend to the owner’s home, car, computer, or anything he comes into contact with, including those around him.
A second privacy concern is in the context of the Google Glass users themselves. With the growing concerns over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) wiretapping and law enforcement’s warrantless searches of electronic devices, Google Glass could potentially provide the government with an immense amount of its citizens’ information. By remotely accessing a user’s Google Glass, law enforcement officers could invade every significant portion of a citizen’s life, including information that is not stored on the device. Google Glass observes everything the wearer does: what he searches for and stores on the device, everything he looks at while wearing the glasses, and information detailing what he focuses on while using Glass. Therefore, searches could potentially extend to the owner’s home, car, computer, or anything that the owner looks at or comes into contact with, including those around him.
Based on the limitless nature of Google Glass, the government may have a more difficult time arguing that a search does not violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right of privacy. A balancing test may be used by the courts to determine if there was indeed a violation of privacy. With this test, courts weigh the public interest against the individual’s right to be free from arbitrary interference when considering a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, in order for a search of someone’s Google Glass to meet the balancing test, the search would need to be substantially justified in order to be constitutional.
The United Kingdom has already banned Google Glass users from wearing the device while driving.
Lastly, another fear is that Google Glass will lead to distractions for drivers using Google Glass while on the road. Distracted driving is certainly a problem, and Google Glass would enable users to search for and view information while driving—causing concern over potential traffic safety risks and the possibility of an increased number of fatalities.
The United Kingdom has already banned Google Glass users from wearing the device while driving, leading some in the United States to push for similar prohibitions even though Glass will not be available on the market until 2014. Legislatures in New Jersey (pdf) and West Virginia have proposed bills which would prohibit drivers from wearing devices like Google Glass, but whether these precautions are sufficient remains to be seen. As technology develops, Glass is likely to become indistinguishable from normal eyewear. While it is easier to determine if someone is texting compared with someone using Google Glass, it may be difficult for police officers to effectively prevent drivers from using Glass while on the road.
Google Glass has the potential to benefit and improve users’ lives, but there are many concerns that both the legal community and the nation must be prepared to confront.
Despite these significant privacy and safety concerns, there may be some ways in which users and the community can limit some of the negative effects of Google Glass. Although North Carolina law recognizes the tort of intrusion into seclusion (pdf)—more commonly known as invasion of privacy—this cause of action would only deter a Google Glass wearer from intruding into the private life of a non-wearer and would not apply when a citizen is out in the public’s view.
If the law remains unchanged, it will be up to public norms and social customs—rather than laws and government regulations—to further limit uses of Google Glass. For example, invasions of privacy could be minimized by treating Google Glass like a cellphone. Public norms have frowned upon people using cellphones in business meetings or other private settings by requiring people to keep their phones in their bags or pockets. Likewise, citizens may protect their privacy interests by simply asking others to remove their Google Glasses, limiting the invasion in private settings.
This would not address privacy concerns, however, in the general public view. Because people do not have a privacy interest in things they put into the public view, citizens will not be entirely protected from others taking pictures or recordings when they are in public. As a result, people may have to become more conscious about what they do when they are in a public place.
Google Glass has the potential to benefit and improve users’ lives, but like any technological innovation, there are many concerns moving forward that both the legal community and the public at large must be prepared to confront. As some privacy activists have noted, as long as people “actively set social and physical bounds around the use of technologies and not just fatalistically accept the direction technology is heading in,” such concerns may be adequately addressed as advancements are made.