Rebunking Google’s Glass “myth” debunking

Rebunking Google's Glass "myth" debunking

HMS Unicorn with Google GlassGoogle appears to be bristling a teensy bit about what it thinks are people’s unfounded prejudices against Glass.

On Thursday, the company went into debunking mode, publishing what it called The Top 10 Google Glass Myths.

Let us calmly, without overuse of a term used to refer to stubborn Glass wearers, rebunk a few of those supposed myths, with an eye to the privacy- and/or security-centric ones in particular.

Myth or Non-Myth: Glass is always on and recording everything
Google says:

Just like your cell phone, the Glass screen is off by default. Video recording on Glass is set to last 10 seconds. People can record for longer, but Glass isn't designed for or even capable of always-on recording (the battery won’t last longer than 45 minutes before it needs to be charged). So next time you’re tempted to ask an Explorer if he’s recording you, ask yourself if you’d be doing the same with your phone. Chances are your answers will be the same.

Point 1: The length of recording is irrelevant when privacy is being invaded. Just ask the guy who was arrested for upskirting women on Boston’s subway whether 10 seconds would be enough time to point his mobile phone camera up women’s skirts and snap photos of their sexual bits.

Point 2: Google would have us believe that Glass will indicate that it’s on and recording by virtue of its green camera-on light.

It would be reassuring to believe that’s a reliably tell-tale sign of being recorded, but multiple researchers have shown that it can be tinkered with.

As far as taking still photos goes, most recently, researchers demonstrated their Glass spyware app’s ability to surreptitiously take photos of a Glass wearer him- or herself.

And then too there was the work done by Android and iOS developer Jay Freeman, in which he found that he could root Glass and thus install any software he wanted.

That’s pretty creepy, given what rooting can allow a wearer to do, Freeman said, including turning off the recording indicator light.

How did he do it? As he told ZDNet, Glass’s light isn’t hardwired, like on many webcams, meaning it can be circumvented via software.

Bingo: surreptitious recording for stalker creeps, without being given away by that tell-tale light.

So yes, if a Glass-clad person is ogling you, please feel free to ask if they’re recording.

Myth or non-Myth: Glass Explorers are technology-worshipping geeks
Google says:

In fact, many Explorers say because of Glass they use technology less, because they’re using it much more efficiently. We know what you’re thinking: “I’m not distracted by technology”. But the next time you’re on the subway, or, sitting on a bench, or in a coffee shop, just look at the people around you. You might be surprised at what you see.

You say “technology-worshipping geek” as if that’s a bad thing.

But no, of course Glass users aren’t all cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, Glass people can undeniably veer into the technology-obsessed – a fault when it impinges on the comfort or privacy of others.

The more notable cases of inconsiderate behavior include that of Sarah Slocum, who claimed she was attacked for wearing Google Glass.

Video captured from her Glass shows that, before they were ripped from her face, people were shielding themselves from being videotaped.

In fact, Slocum says that before she was de-Glassified, she had been demonstrating the device to a curious person.

Demonstrating in such a way that users were being involuntarily recorded? Yes, this is a case where technology-obsessed geekiness made a Glass user oblivious to the comfort of those around her.

The case of Nick Starr, the man who refused to take off his Glass in a Seattle restaurant and reportedly went on a rant, demanding that the waitperson in question be fired after he was asked to remove his Glass, is another case that shows that Glass-technology love can get out of hand.

Not always, of course, but yes, what Google calls a “myth” is informed by real-world instances.

Besides, distraction is most certainly a concern. Already, one woman was issued a traffic ticket in October 2013 for speeding and distracted driving after being stopped while wearing Glass.

Web and mobile app developer Cecilia Abadie claimed the device was not switched on at the time and was cleared of the charges in January 2014.

But try to tell the UK Department of Transport that the devices aren’t distracting. As of July 2013, the department was planning to ban drivers from using Glass before Google even managed to launch in the UK.

Myth or non-Myth: Myth 5: Glass does facial recognition (and other dodgy things)
Google says:

Nope. That’s not true. As we’ve said before, regardless of technological feasibility, we made the decision based on feedback not to release or even distribute facial recognition Glassware unless we could properly address the many issues raised by that kind of feature. And just because a weird application is created, doesn’t mean it’ll get distributed in our MyGlass store. We manually approve all the apps that appear there and have several measures in place (from developer policies and screenlocks to warning interstitials) to help protect people’s security on the device.

Policies do not equate to technological barriers. The California Polytechic grad students who created the aforementioned Glass spyware got it onto the Google Play app store for Android.

As Forbes’s Andy Greenberg reported, the developers didn’t bother to try getting it into the MyGlass store after their professor tweeted about their work. The professor had received a response from a Google staffer, after which the app was quickly removed from Google Play.

Sure, it came down after Google found out about it, but there was nothing that kept the spyware app from getting up to begin with.

Besides, a facial recognition app doesn’t have to get onto MyGlass or Google Play to get onto your Glass. As mentioned, rooting Glass is straightforward, and as one of the spyware researchers noted, it’s a wild, wild west with the non-Google-sanctified apps out there.

One such is NameTag, an app that can spot a face and wirelessly match it up to social media profiles.

It was in beta for Google Glass users in January and was slated to be released as an app for iOS and Android.

The developers said in a release that that “Making Real-Time Facial Recognition work on Glass hasn’t been easy,” but that sure hasn’t stopped them, in spite of Google having announced that it’s not yet supporting facial recognition for Glass.

Myth or non-Myth: Glass is banned… EVERYWHERE
Google says:

Since cell phones came onto the scene, folks have been pretty good at creating etiquette and the requisite (and often necessary) bans around where someone can record (locker rooms, casino floors, etc.). Since Glass functionality mirrors the cell phones (down to the screen being off by default), the same rules apply.

“Everywhere?” “EVERYWHERE?” Um… no. Not a real myth. They’ve been banned in some bars and restaurants, but I’ve never heard anybody shout out in full caps that ‘s they’ve been banned ubiquitously. Google must have needed another myth to debunk for its listicle.

Myth or non-Myth: Glass marks the end of privacy

Sophos Labs’s John Bryan recently pondered whether data privacy is an out-of-date concept, given the intimate things that people – particularly young people – don’t seem to think twice about giving away.

Naked Security’s Mark Stockley said that no, it’s more important than ever.

Mark suggests that the biggest difference between privacy today and the past is not how liberal our attitudes are but how permanent our data privacy choices have become. Once disclosed, online, data can be impossible to claw back.

Does Glass mark the end of privacy?

No one thing can be said to mark the end of privacy, but things can collaterally nibble it away.

Much depends on how we use Glass, and on how we allow it to be used.

If our images are captured without our permission, for example, then yes, Glass is helping to erode our privacy.

If they’re used for facial recognition that then links somebody to our social media profiles, then yes, Glass is not helping our privacy.

Google is right to question misperceptions about its inventions.

But rendering questions in hyperbolic terms so the “myths” can be laughed off isn’t doing justice to the validity of concerns raised by this technology.

Google, you’re right to have brought up these issues.

Now, let’s drop the full-caps and the jokey attitude and talk seriously about these issues.

HMS Unicorn image licensed under Creative Commons.