Lawmaker ‘disappointed’ with Google’s response on Glass privacy

Google’s Glass headset may be catching the eyes of gadget-
lovers, but it has also attracted some pointed inquiries from regulators across the globe, who want more information about how the company will handle privacy concerns.

On Monday, Google attempted to assure U.S. lawmakers that the headset, which mimics many of the functions of a smartphone, does not push the barriers of its privacy standards. But that was not enough to satisfy some lawmakers’ lingering concerns.

Google Glass covers a user’s eye with a small screen that can display e-mails, text messages, even take pictures with a wink of an eye or record video. It is available only to developers and an early batch of test users but is expected to go on sale next year.

Google has been on a charm offensive, attempting to head off concerns about the new technology. It has even brought headsets to Capitol Hill, allowing lawmakers to test its features.

That hasn’t been enough for everyone. In May, the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus asked for more information about how Google Glass will work within the company’s privacy standards. Last month, 10 privacy regulators from around the world, including Canada, Australia and a European Commission panel, asked Google for more information on how the company’s headset complies with their data protection laws and what data it collects.

Google is “thinking carefully” about the feedback it has received from lawmakers, Susan Molinari, Google’s vice president of public policy and government relations, said in a response to the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus. The company has no plans to change its privacy policy to deal with Glass-specific concerns, she said.

“Protecting the security and privacy of our users is one of our top priorities,” Molinari said.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), co-chairman of the caucus, said that Google has failed to answer the key question: How can it ensure the privacy of passersby who have not agreed to be photographed or videotaped?

He said that there ought to be a way to alert individuals that they may be on camera and that there should be limits on the types of data that Google and other companies can collect from it, as well as limits on how long that data can be stored.

“There do not appear to me to be strong privacy protections for the population at large, or even ownership protection for the user of the Google Glass product,” Barton said.

In her letter to the caucus, Molinari noted that many functions of Glass, including video recording, require “social cues” that signal that the device is active such as a vocal or physical prompt. Also, the headset screen glows while in use, and developers have been prohibited from disabling that function.

“These signals help people understand what users are doing and give Glass users means for employing etiquette in any given situation,” said Molinari, a former congresswoman from New York.

Barton has also questioned whether Google Glass could be used to build a database of people’s faces. But Molinari said Google has no plans to allow facial-recognition technology on Google Glass.

Barton, who had the opportunity to use Glass during a Google visit to Capitol Hill, said he’d like to see industry players such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo work with lawmakers and regulators to come up with laws that protect privacy while allowing companies to make innovative products such as wearable devices.

“I’m not anti-Google and not anti-technology, but I do think both political parties need to come together and update privacy protection laws for the 21st century,” Barton said. “We’re at a point where the technology is outstripping the common-sense ability to protect people’s basic privacy rights.”

Sign up today to receive #thecircuit, a daily roundup of the latest tech policy news from Washington and how it is shaping business, entertainment and science.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business