Google Glass as congressional catnip: That didn't take long

A new technology offers Congress a new opportunity to preen for the cameras.

Sergey Brin showed off Glass at last year's I/O. CNET

Let's stipulate for the record that Congress has every right to ask questions of private industry as it works on the nation's behalf. I remember reading something to that effect when I was studying social studies once upon a time.

Then you have this: A public letter sent to Google CEO Larry Page by eight members of Congress inquiring "whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of the average American."

News flash: Congress has discovered the 21st century.

It's not that the congressional representatives who signed onto to this letter were necessarily naive about how technology gets used in the real world. Or that they were simply preening for publicity's sake in seizing on one of the big tech stories of the season, knowing they were guaranteed news coverage.

But this topic offers a rare opportunity to preen. Google Glass, a product that's at least a year away from consumer availability, is now congressional catnip. The letter's co-signatories are demanding more information about how Google intends to stop Glass from collecting user data about someone without someone's consent. That's for starters:

  • When using Google Glass, is it true that this product would be able to use Facial Recognition Technology to unveil personal information about whomever and even some inanimate objects that the user is viewing? Would a user be able to request such information? Can a nonuser or human subject opt out of this collection of personal data? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • In Google's privacy policy, it states that the company "may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number)." Would Google Glass collect any data about the user without the user's knowledge and consent? If so, why? If not, please explain.
  • Will Google Glass have the capacity to store any data on the device itself? If so, will Google Glass implement some sort of user authentication system to safeguard stored data? If not, why not? If so, please explain.

Turns out that Google Glass's product director was asked about the privacy implications of the device Thursday afternoon during one of the sessions at the company's I/O conference. He was quoted as saying that Google has thought about the social implications and etiquette since day one. (Whatever that means.)

Google knows this is just the opening scene in what promises to be a predictable kabuki-like script. After Congress gets done with grandstanding, Google will dutifully promise to do its best and be a good corporate citizen, respectful of the individual's privacy -- and it won't make a whit of difference in the end.

This comes down to individual behavior. You can hope people will do the right thing. But it's like smoking or buying supersize soda cups. All the tut-tutting in the world isn't going to change human behavior. I'm not defending the right of jerks not to ask permission before photographing or filming people. But you know that they will, because that's just people being people. Bad etiquette is bad etiquette, and it makes little difference what lawmakers say or do.

 

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