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Will Google Glass Be the Next Technology to Breach Our Civil Liberties?

Imagine if the NSA could hack into your eyes.

Someone wearing Google Glass. (Image via)

The past few days haven't been good for civil liberties. Thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence employee turned whistleblower, a light has been shone on a nefarious wing of the US military, known as the NSA. In conjunction with its British counterpart, GCHQ, the NSA has been directly accessing the personal data of civilians stored in the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype and other internet companies. As in, all the big, important internet behemoths that will have detailed records of insignificant stuff like, say, your address, bank details and extended records of every single one of your personal interests. That news came in the wake of the revelation that phone company Verizon has been handing over phone records to the US government for years.


PRISM – the offending internet surveillance project, which has been running since 2007 – was exposed through a top secret, 41-page presentation used to train operatives on the project’s scope and power. The programme allows access to emails, instant messages, internet search history, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and social networking details. So everything, basically. According to statements released by some of the affected companies, all of this surveillance has been going on without their knowledge.

These recent breaches of the public's civil liberties open up plenty of questions about the future of internet privacy. Chief among them are those that must be asked of Google Glass – the new glasses that allow you to check emails without using your hands, take photos of people by winking at them and basically turn the real world into a digitally enhanced cartoon. The worry is that the data collected by Glass may well impinge on civil liberties and the personal privacy of both users and non-users.

Prior to the PRISM programme being revealed, I spoke to Bruce Schneier, a security and technology expert, about Glass. His points arguably now hold even more weight since the NSA revelations.

Bruce Schneier. (Image via)

VICE: Hey Bruce. So what’s your problem with Glass?
Bruce Schneier: That it will provide a surveillance database. You’re going to create all of this data, and it will all be stored somewhere by one company. The real worry is who gets to see the data. Google aren't doing this for benevolence towards society, they're going to sell this data to advertisers. The data will also be available to law enforcement. In the United States at least, there is a much lower standard of data privacy [than in the UK], so it's open to abuse. In other countries, the standards are even lower.


And, like everything else, you can be judged based on this, which may or may not be an accurate judging. There is a lot of cool stuff about Google Glass, but these are the worries that I think we need to think about as we move into this, irrespective of whether it’s Google Glass or something else. I mean, basically, the discussion is about pervasive, stored video.

How do you go about protecting the privacy of people who don't want to be caught on camera by Glass?
You can’t! It’s not like you can opt in or opt out. I mean, how do you opt in? There’s no way to do it. This is why people are saying that they don’t want to go to a restaurant where someone is wearing it, or why bars and other social establishments are pre-emptively banning entry to anyone wearing a pair of Glass.

But isn’t all this similar to having CCTV in public places? Most people don’t seem bothered about being caught on camera all day. What’s the difference with Glass?
The difference is that the data generated by Glass is aggregated; it’s all pooled together by one company: Google. If you're recorded by 1,000 cameras a day – and you live in London, so you are – that footage is spread out among different companies. But if you're filmed by another 1,000 cameras and all of the footage is given to one company? That’s different.

Thanks for clearing that up, Bruce.

One of Glass's promo videos, demonstrating how useful they are while you're trapezing or sculpting ice.

Bruce is right; if the NSA is able to directly tap into the personal data of Google users, it doesn’t matter which of the company’s products you're using. This is because, for Google, data is data. Whether it's an email sent from your desktop computer, a file in Google Drive being viewed on your smartphone or a video being captured through Glass, all of this data is affiliated with your Google account. They can read what you write, hear what you say and see what you see.


So there are two issues: the small scale, domestic surveillance – where you may not know whether someone walking down the street is filming you. The second, more serious, concern is that all of this data is being collected by one company and then going into a gigantic data pool than can be dipped in and out of by world governments, with no consent from you or even the host companies.

I spoke to Michael Valvo from Google and asked whether Glass really is as dangerous as many are claiming.

VICE: One of the main reasons people are uneasy about your latest product is that it may be hard to tell when you're being filmed by someone wearing Glass. Is that true?
Michael Valvo: We’ve built social signals into the device so people can understand what a wearer is doing – taking photos or videos, for example. Glass is also about much more than just taking videos and pictures; it can display maps with directions while you're on the move, allow you to receive and reply to messages – all sorts.

What about the unsettling idea laid out by some critics of Glass: that users will be able to use face recognition software to identify someone, and in turn be handed a wealth of personal information about them that is readily available on the internet?
There is no facial recognition software in Glass and there are no plans to put it in. We've consistently said that we won't add new face recognition features to our services unless we have strong privacy protections in place.


What about all of this data being collected, stored and sold by one company, namely Google?
As our Terms of Service make clear, “What belongs to you stays yours.” You own your files and control their sharing, plain and simple. Protecting the privacy and security of our users' data is our top priority at Google. Central to that is offering easy-to-use controls that allow people to manage the information they store with Google. You are in control of the photos and videos you choose to capture with Glass – they're uploaded to your account, where you can decide whether to share or delete.

Thanks, Michael.

As reactions to the NSA and GCHQ's attack on civilian privacy flood in, Michael Valvo's comments seem increasingly questionable. However, it's important to turn the points into a meaningful dialogue. Because while the internet giants may not be publically accountable, the US and other governments around the world most certainly are.

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

More stuff about the NSA:

Privacy’s Public, Government-Sponsored Death

The Motherboard Guide to Avoiding the NSA

China's Hacking Army Is Making the US Military Look Like Idiots