Privacy professionals, including myself, have long been warning of the dangers to privacy from wearable technology. Often, the concerns have been expressed based on anecdotal evidence. So, when I had the opportunity to join the Google Glass Explorer program, I jumped at the chance.
When I received the box from Google, like a child receiving a new present, I tore open the packaging. Then, following the instructions, I set up a Google+ account, downloaded an app to my smartphone and charged the Glass. I was now ready to go, deferring setting the privacy settings on Google+ until later.
Without adding any apps, or “glassware,” I began to try the thing out: I sent a text message to my wife; I made a phone call; I took a picture and shared it, and I took a very short video. I now thought I was ready to take Glass out of the house. So, bright and early the next morning I put on Glass, leashed up the dog, and, as we stepped out the door, it hit me ... the creepy feeling.
Whether I did it or not, I might soon be perceived as invading my neighbors’ privacy. People I don't know may think I am taking their picture or shooting a video that I could share with the world.
More importantly, I was questioning if I would be tempted to take pictures and videos without asking permission. After all, to take a picture I just have to wink with my right eye (speaking of creepy, will women think I am flirting?) and, without noticing the two- or three-second light in the screen, no one would know I took a picture.
I had come to an ethical crossroad.
- Be transparent that wearable technology is being used;
- Provide verbal notice to those I meet by explaining what I am wearing and how I intend to use it, before they ask;
- Respect requests for information from anyone that approaches me, and
- Respect privacy requests from individuals or businesses, up to and including deleting any images or videos already taken.
With my policy in place, it was time to go out in public.
Taking Glass to Dinner
My wife and I were meeting some friends for dinner, and Glass was coming along. Our friends are not shy, so when we met to go to the restaurant, they immediately asked what I was wearing. I explained Glass, gave a quick demo and off we went.
Upon reaching our destination, a small group of 20-somethings came up and asked about Glass; they had heard about it, but had never seen it. Most other people we passed looked or stared but respected our privacy.
After ordering our meals, we began discussing another restaurant we had heard of but didn't know much about. Using Glass, I searched for information, allowing me to talk reasonably intelligently about the place. Handy, for sure, but my friends thought this was weird. Interestingly, they were more uncomfortable with me being able to retrieve information without reaching for a smartphone than they were with the potential of having their picture published on a social network.
In most situations, reactions to Glass are pretty much the same: Tech-savvy people ask about the technology; others just look, maybe stare a bit, and move on.
So, it’s fun and intriguing, this new toy. But how useful, really?
It's All About the Glassware
Then I began to add glassware, and that got me hooked on Glass. It was not hard to see how this technology would be useful in both my business and personal life.
- I can send and receive messages and e-mails;
- I can receive alerts and reminders;
- I can make and receive phone calls;
- I can share things with social networks;
- I can search;
- I can get directions (but won't use it while driving), and
- I can track and share my recreational activities.
There is potential for some very interesting consumer and business applications using wearable technology as a platform. Ultimately, just like a smartphone, each user of Glass will have a unique set of capabilities based on the glassware they install.
A New View on Glass
My current, but evolving, perspective is to think of Glass as a new user interface to an existing technology, an enhancement to my smartphone, if you will. Like with any new enhancement, we need to figure out the acceptable etiquette associated with Glass or any other wearable technology. Establishing the correct etiquette for wearable technology is no different than when mobile phones became ubiquitous, followed by cameras in phones and then smartphones themselves. Though frankly, I am not sure we have that etiquette worked out yet.
For example, when I was first using Glass, I was constantly looking up and to the right, glancing at the screen. It was very distracting until I got used to the display being there. During conversations, people thought I might be checked out and playing with my new shiny object—I am a guy after all. The etiquette lesson here? Sometimes, just give it a rest. This perception of being distracted does not work well when sitting in a business meeting.
The Business Implications of Wearable Technology
It can be argued that the use of wearable technology in business is not new. Visit an Office Depot retail store, for example, and notice that every employee on the floor is wearing a headset. The headset allows them to communicate with other store team members to get assistance or for a manager to direct resources to assist customers. With this headset there are visible and audible queues that the technology is being used. Also, since two-way communications is readily accepted by the public, there is little controversy about its use.
Introducing wearable technology that is still emerging and more comprehensive than a two-way radio will present some challenges and may be met with resistance by the public. Whether in a retail store or within an office, visitors may be skeptical of the technology, its use and its impact on privacy. Establishing a policy to support the use of wearable technology—similar to the points listed above—will assist in addressing concerns. Further, a marketing-type campaign explaining how the technology will improve things for your stakeholders, be they customers or vendors, will help to put these visitors at ease.
Businesses need to recognize that visitors and employees may be using wearable technology for both professional and personal reasons. Policies should be defined and enforced for the use of this technology in the business environment. Items to consider should include:
- The Use of Cameras: Many businesses have prohibitions regarding the use of cameras, both photo and video, on premises. However, with the ubiquity of smartphones, these prohibitions are often not enforced. This could easily result in privacy breaches and the loss of intellectual property. Businesses need to reevaluate the applicability and enforcement of these policies.
- Location-Based Services: The ability to determine the location of an individual through their wearable (or mobile) technology introduces risk to a business’s security. If people are known to work in an area that contains personal and/or classified material, the tracking of their location can assist “evil-doers” in determining where the information resides and how to access the area. It is recommended that any personal technology that can determine location be banned from areas containing classified information or processes.
- Perceptions of Surveillance: Wearable technology can collect images, sound, location and even biometric information. If a business implements wearable technology, employees may perceive that they are under constant surveillance. In addition to any legal requirements that must be addressed, businesses must work with their employees, unions, works councils, etc., to ensure acceptance of the use of the technology, including dispelling any surveillance concerns.
It is important to note that other examples of wearable technology, such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, may be more difficult to detect; their presence is not as apparent as that of Glass. When defining your business’s policies you will need to consider how to enforce policies when you cannot easily detect the presence of wearable technology.
- Is providing notice sufficient?
- Will obtaining the acknowledgement of the policy from all employees and visitors be necessary?
- Will you need to provide storage facilities to hold visitors’ technology while they are on your premises?
- How will restrictions on the use of the technology be perceived by your stakeholders?
Wearable technology and privacy
My perspective continues to evolve, but I am less concerned about privacy related to Glass than I was before I started using the product. I am beginning to view the basic privacy challenges as similar to those associated with existing mobile technology. For Glass, the privacy risks are basically the same as with any Android-based technology.
A simple example of the parallelism can be seen if you compare taking a video using wearable technology with taking a video on your smartphone. In both cases, an image is being taken of a person with or without his or her knowledge and consent—remember that Romney fundraiser? In both cases, the onus lies with the app/glassware developers, businesses and users to decide what is collected, what is shared, how it is shared and who else receives any information collected.
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