Privacy watchdogs ask for details about Google Glass device

Out-Law News | 20 Jun 2013 | 2:21 pm | 3 min. read

Privacy watchdogs based around the world have asked Google to provide them with details about its intended use of data to be collected from its 'Google Glass' device currently under development.

The Article 29 Working Party, which represents EU data protection authorities, and the Canadian and Australian privacy commissioners are among the watchdogs to have written to Google seeking information about the technology and how the company intends to ensure compliance with data protection laws.

Google Glass is a computer device currently under testing that individuals could wear in the same way as glasses. According to the technology giant, the device will enable hands-free taking of pictures and recording of images among other visual and audio user interactions.

The privacy watchdogs said they are seeking more information from Google about the wearable technology, after claiming that the product raises a number of "ethical issues".

"We would strongly urge Google to engage in a real dialogue with data protection authorities about Glass," the watchdogs said in a letter to Google chief executive Larry Page

Data protection law expert Marc Dautlich of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that regulators are keen to ensure that privacy is built into technology design.

"The privacy issues relating to wearable technology are not new," Dautlich said. "The ongoing trade-offs between the benefit of technology versus the protection of privacy should occupy the technology industry in a number of areas, from location services and social media to mobile health. It is however interesting to see here that as well as 6 international privacy officials questioning Google’s privacy intentions in relation to Google Glass, the US Congress has also been involved at an early stage. The intervention will primarily be aimed at ensuring that privacy is built in to the new product in the way it is designed."

The privacy watchdogs said that they would like Google to explain how Google Glass complies with data protection rules, what privacy safeguards the company and app developers are putting in place, what information it will collect via the device and what data will be shared with third parties.

In addition, Google is asked to detail how it intends to use the collected information, how it will deal with issues relating to facial recognition technology, and whether it is doing anything to address "social and ethical issues", such as "the surreptitious collection of information about other individuals".

The watchdogs also want to know whether Google has carried out a privacy risk assessment for Google Glass and if the company would be willing to share the results. They have also expressed a desire to have Google demonstrate the product to them and enable them to test it themselves.

"We are aware that these questions relate to issues that fall squarely within our purview as data protection commissioners, as well as to other broader, ethical issues that arise from wearable computing," the letter said. "Nevertheless, we feel it is important for us to raise all of these concerns.  We would be very interested in hearing about the privacy implications of this new product and the steps you are taking to ensure that, as you move forward with Google Glass, individuals’ privacy rights are respected around the world."

A Google spokesperson said that the company is still to finalise the design of Google Glass "because new technology always raises new issues", according to a report by ZDNet. They said that Google's 'Glass Explorer' program "will ensure that our users become active participants in shaping the future of this technology".

Intellectual property law expert Deborah Bould of Pinsent Masons said that wearable technology could be the next "battleground" for technology companies to obtain and assert patent rights.

"The growing prominence of wearable technology like Google Glass is an exciting prospect for consumers and the technology community," Bould said. "It enables users to interact with their devices in a totally different way and gives the user a new experience. As the smartphone market reaches its peak in the western world, wearable technology represents a new revenue opportunity and a chance to create genuinely innovative products. We are seeing many of the big names in technology announcing that they are working on various wearable technologies, most notably smart watches."

"As technology advances, the legal and ethical risks associated with product innovations are now more than ever in the spotlight. Wearable technology is likely to be a new battleground when it comes to the ongoing patent wars; these are proprietary technologies protected largely by patent rights," she said.