When you start using a convenient, new digital product, whether it's Facebook or a shopping app, you often have to compromise your privacy. It's a trade-off. But critics of Google Glass say that with this technology, it's other members of the public whose privacy suffers because they may not know when they're being photographed. That is one of several concerns the technology has prompted.
A Glass user can snap a photo or shoot a video clip with just a subtle tap on the frame. (Lifelogging devices go much further: The Narrative Clip camera takes two photographs per minute, without any input from the user.) That may make people uncomfortable, and the use of the video capability apparently contributed to one confrontation in which a Glass owner had the device snatched from her face.
We had an editor attempt to push the boundaries to see how commonplace those concerns really are. She passed through airport security and entered public restrooms and coffee shops while wearing Glass, and experienced no confrontations—or even uncomfortable glances.
To be fair, things may change if the device, and its video capabilities, become more familiar. (See the results of CR's survey on Glass below.) The website StopTheCyborgs.org, which raises questions on several aspects of wearable technology, maintains that harm is done even if the camera isn't in use. Its statement on Glass reads: "The issue is not covert recording. Spy cameras exist and the current generation of Google Glass is not particularly good for covert recording. Rather, the first issue is that wearable devices socially normalize ubiquitous surveillance. That is, they create a society where we expect to be recorded, where every moment is to be shared, documented and data-mined."
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a chain of 18 theaters, has banned Google Glass once the lights have dimmed, and in January an Ohio man was pulled out of an AMC theater and questioned by federal law enforcement officers who suspected he was recording the movie.
Glass would be a poor way to pirate a movie—works that are illegally downloaded these days tend to be high-quality copies of a source file, not the shaky recordings of a big screen that were sometimes circulated in the past.
Several states are considering bans on the use of Google Glass and similar technologies by drivers. Distracted driving reportedly caused 3,328 deaths in 2012, the last year for which data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is available. Forty-four states prohibit text messaging, and 13 have outlawed the use of handheld phones.
Glass can be controlled with voice commands—but research studies compiled by the National Safety Council suggest that talking on the phone with a hands-free device is no safer than holding a phone to your ear. Presumably, it would be even more dangerous to use Glass to check e-mail while driving.
Yes, but ...
Glass may have some potential to actually improve driver safety. A Glass app called DriveSafe is being developed that purports to sound an alarm if the driver appears to be nodding off. Could heads-up driving directions keep drivers from fumbling with their phones? Maybe. Consumer Reports has not tested Glass in terms of driver distraction.
The fact that Glass rubs many people the wrong way can be inferred from the dozens of articles written about Glass etiquette. Google developed its own set of guidelines—and it highlights the trouble spots.
Among the items on the don't list: "Don't be creepy or rude (aka a "Glasshole")." That includes not asking permission before shooting stills or video, staring into the screen when you're supposed to be paying attention to the people around you, and leaving the device running in theaters or other locations where people are expected to turn off cell phones. The website glasshole-free.org lists bars and restaurants that ban Google Glass.
Yes, but ...
Smart-phone users can be pretty obnoxious, too—no Glass necessary.
Google Glass has been a divisive product. It has been ridiculed by TV comedians, and some people worry that Glass users can shoot video without anyone knowing about it. In June we surveyed Americans to see how they felt about Glass, and discovered that most people were still waiting to learn more. Still others were excited by the technology.
This story also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.