Businesses, politicians raise red flag on Google Glass

It’s not available to the public yet but the capabilities of Google Glass have businesses and privacy advocates sounding alarm bells.

Google Glass hasn't been released to the public yet, but a crackdown has already started against it, making it verboten in places as curious as a West Coast dive bar and as high-profile as billion-dollar casinos.

Recently, Caesar's Entertainment in Las Vegas announced that it would not allow the glasses fitted with a small computer on its gambling floors or at its shows.

Additionally, eight members of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page last week asking what privacy protections would be incorporated into Glass. Google has said repeatedly that its current version is just a test model meant to glean insights about privacy and feasibility from first users.

Video: Google Glass brings up privacy concerns

ONE STEP TOO FAR?

As businesses expel Glass before it can gain a foothold, and legislators begin sounding a cry about it, privacy experts and mobile technology mavens are asking themselves if wearable technologies may be taking innovation one step too far.

"As wearable technologies proliferate, the fundamental concept of privacy as we understand it will begin to erode," said Aaron I. Messing, an information privacy attorney at OlenderFeldman LLP in Union, N.J. "The technology itself is neutral, but the potential uses can be either harmful or helpful."

HOW IT WORKS

Google Glass has a speaker, microphone and a camera. The device can pair with your smartphone or connect to Wi-Fi networks on its own. With the touch of a finger or a voice command, Glass can engage in Google Hangouts, make voices calls and search the Internet. It's expected to sell for around $1,500.

More concerning to privacy advocates, however, is Glass's ability to take videos and photos, sometimes without any indication the wearer is doing so. A group of developers has already engineered a way to eliminate commands on Glass, instead snapping pictures with as little as a wink, The New York Times reported.

WHO HAS BANNED GLASS

In light of Glass's clandestine abilities, Caesar's decision to ban it wasn't all that surprising. After all, casinos take security very seriously and many already ban computers or recording devices. If they don't allow a clunky video camera from 1988, they'd hardly be expected to embrace a set of glasses capable of surreptitiously capturing and sharing dealers' habits without even a press of a button.

While Caesar's may be the biggest name so far to banish Google Glass, the mega-casino isn't alone in its expulsion of the technology.

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In Seattle, The 5 Point Café grabbed headlines in March when owner David Meinert made a tongue-in-cheek post on the bar and diner's Facebook page announcing that Glass was tech non-grata in his establishment.

While Meinert's missive was light-hearted in spirit, it had serious undertones. 5 Point is a private place, he told KIRO radio. People shouldn’t have to worry about secretly having their picture taken there.

Sapphire Gentleman's Club in Las Vegas has also prohibited Glass on its premises.

"We've been dealing with the cellphone videoing and the picture-taking over the years and we are quick to make sure that that doesn't happen in the club," Peter Feinstein, managing partner of Sapphire, told NBC News. He said visitors who show up donning Glass would be asked to check the device just like they would their cellphone.

PENDING LEGISLATION

In West Virginia, State Rep. Gary G. Howell (R) introduced a bill last session that would ban drivers from wearing Google Glass behind the wheel. Howell's legislation was an addition to a bill in the state's House of Delegates that already restricts using a mobile phone while driving. Howell said he was concerned about a head-mounted display distracting a vehicle operator.

"Unlike a head-up display in a car or even a fighter jet,” Howell explained to Wired, “that information is crucial to the operator."

"Can you imagine a fighter pilot watching cat videos in a multimillion-dollar aircraft?"

Though Howell's bill didn't make it to the floor for a vote before the state's s legislative session ended, he plans to introduce it again, and with more input and research from Google and safety experts.

PRIVACY CONCERNS TAKEN SERIOUSLY

The most vocal concern to date about Glass is that users can secretly record at will. This may be more myth than reality. Glass, while still in beta, emits a bright red light when recording and caps videos at 10 seconds, ensuring that no wearer can walk around videoing without interruption or a visible sign that a recording is in progress.

Still, technologies of all types can be tinkered with for malevolent purposes. Chief among advocates' concern is the future adoption of facial recognition software. Imagine if someone could covertly snap a photo of a person on the street, identify them by name and tag their location. While Google has said that no recognition software would be created without strict oversight and mandatory privacy protections, privacy advocates are concerned that recognition tools could be the beginning of the end for anonymity.

"Glass has limits, but this is version one," said Adam, a spokesperson for Stop the Cyborgs, a London-based public advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness and create etiquette and dialogue around the spread of wearable technologies — primarily Google Glass. (Adam does not use his last name online.)

"As soon as these technologies seem normal and socially acceptable, will we be able to challenge versions one, two, three and four that can record all the time and have facial recognition abilities?" he asked.

Adam points out that our tolerance for intrusive technologies tends to grow as those products become socially acceptable. Not so long ago, privacy advocates were concerned that smartphone cameras would end solitude as we know it, but those roars have softened to a hush today. He said Stop the Cyborgs seeks to establish limits before they can be crossed.

"We want to shape the norms around wearable tech and flag this as an issue," he said. "We want to encourage businesses that they can prohibit this so people won't be worried that they're going to be put on YouTube."

Overall, as Messing put it, technology is neutral, which means it can be used for both good and bad. After all, the Nazis used IBM-designed punch cards to streamline their data-keeping systems, he pointed it.

That doesn’t mean we can disavow technology as a whole, he said.

"Wireless driving directions, finding new restaurants, mapping locations — those benefits will be extraordinarily useful," Messing said.

"But we'll need to have a societal conversation about what norms develop and where it is and isn’t appropriate. If social and legal norms aren’t developed, it can be tremendously intrusive on privacy."