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Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrated the wearable computer Glass.

Associated Press file ,

Google Glass is new front in privacy wars

  • Article by: DAVID STREITFELD
  • New York Times
  • May 6, 2013 - 8:56 PM

– Google’s wearable computer, the most anticipated piece of electronic wizardry since the iPad and iPhone, will not go on sale for many months.

But the critics are already in a lather.

The device, which looks like a pair of glasses and allows users to access the Internet, take photos and film short snippets, has been pre-emptively banned by a Seattle bar. Large parts of Las Vegas will not welcome wearers. West Virginia legislators tried to make it illegal to use the gadget, known as Google Glass, while driving.

“This is just the beginning,” said Timothy Toohey, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in privacy issues. “Google Glass is going to cause quite a brawl.”

As personal technology becomes increasingly nimble and invisible, Glass is prompting questions of whether it will distract drivers, upend relationships and, above all, strip people of what little privacy they still have in public.

A pair of lens-less frames with a tiny computer attached to the right earpiece, Glass is promoted by Google as “seamless and empowering.” It will have the ability to capture any chance encounter — from a celebrity sighting to a grumpy sales clerk — and broadcast it to millions in seconds.

“We are all now going to be both the paparazzi and the paparazzi’s target,” said Karen L. Stevenson, a lawyer with Buchalter Nemer in Los Angeles.

Google stresses that Glass is a work in progress, with test versions now being released to 2,000 developers. Another 8,000 “explorers,” people hand-picked by Google, will soon get a pair.

Among the safeguards to make it less intrusive: You have to speak or touch it to activate it, and you have to look directly at someone to take a photograph or video of them.

“We are thinking very carefully about how we design Glass because new technology always raises new issues,” said Courtney Hohne, a Google spokeswoman.

Developers, however, are already cracking the limits of Glass. One created a small sensation in tech circles last week with a program that eliminated the need for gestures or voice commands. To snap a picture, all the user needs to do is wink.

The 5 Point Cafe, a Seattle dive bar, was apparently the first to explicitly ban Glass. In part it was a publicity stunt — extremely successful, too, as it garnered worldwide attention — but the bar’s owner, Dave Meinert, said there was a serious side. The bar, he said, was “kind of a private place.”

The legislators in West Virginia were not joking at all. The state banned texting while driving last year, but hands-free devices are permitted. That left a loophole for Google Glass. The legislation was introduced too late to gain traction before the most recent session ended, but its sponsor says he is likely to try again.

In Las Vegas, a Caesars Entertainment spokesman noted that computers and recording devices were prohibited in casinos. “We will not allow people to wear Glass while gambling or attending our shows,” he said.

Glass is arriving just as the courts, politicians, privacy advocates, regulators, law enforcement and tech companies are once again arguing over the boundaries of technology in every walk of life.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted last month to require law enforcement to have a warrant to access e-mail, not just a subpoena. The FBI’s use of devices that mimic cellphone towers to track down criminals is being challenged in an Arizona case. A California district court recently ruled that private messages on social media were protected without a warrant.

“Google Glass will test the right to privacy vs. the First Amendment,” said Bradley Shear, a social media expert at George Washington University.

Thad Starner, a pioneer of wearable computing who is a technical adviser to the Glass team, says he thinks concerns about disruption are overblown.

“Asocial people will be able to find a way to do asocial things with this technology, but on average people like to maintain the social contract,” Starner said. He added that he and colleagues had experimented with Glass-type devices for years, “and I can’t think of a single instance where something bad has happened.”

© 2014 Star Tribune