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Jason Hong
“Privacy and
Google Glass”
Google Glass, the wearable headset
computer that is just starting to trickle
out, has seen a lot of press, much of
it negative on the issue of privacy. As
someone who has studied mobile com-
puting and privacy for about a decade,
I thought it would be useful to examine
why there has been such negative sen-
timent, looking at people’s concerns
from two different perspectives, and
see what lessons can be drawn. (For
disclosure purposes, Google has fund-
ed my research several times, and will
be sending my colleagues and I several
units of Glass for research purposes).
Lessons from the Ubiquitous
Computing Project
Let’s start out by rewinding back to
1991, when Ubiquitous Computing was
tive news articles, with titles like “The
Boss That Never Blinks,” “Orwellian
Dream Come True: A Badge That Pin-
points You,” and “You’re Not Para-
noid: They Really Are Watching You.”
I suspect there were two reasons
why there was a backlash. First, the
PARC researchers had not built any
kinds of privacy protections into their
system. While they knew privacy was
a concern from the start, they did not
have good ideas for how to address
the problems. Furthermore, they had
to devote a lot of effort on just mak-
ing the technologies even work in the
first place. However, when journalists
asked the inevitable questions about
privacy, the researchers did not have
any good answers. To some extent,
this scenario is playing out in the ex-
act same way for Google Glass. Many
people are asking reasonable ques-
tions about privacy, and I have not
heard any solid responses yet about
how those concerns will be addressed.
Second, there was an unclear value
proposition for end users. The PARC
team was comprised mostly of peo-
ple from technical backgrounds, and
when talking with journalists, the dis-
cussion usually centered on how the
technologies worked rather than what
benefit they could offer people. Inter-
estingly, the narrative seemed to shift
when the researchers started framing
things in the form of “Invisible Com-
puting,” talking about how these sys-
tems could support people as they go
about their everyday lives. Google is
doing better on this front, by pushing
the fashion aspects of Glass, by hav-
first introduced to the world at large.
In the seminal paper “The Computer
for the 21
Century,” Mark Weiser pre-
sented a grand vision in which one day
computation, communication, and
sensing would be enmeshed in the
everyday world, and could be used to
seamlessly support us in our daily lives.
Weiser led his team in developing
new form factors for computation at
three physical scales: tabs, pads, and
boards. They also developed early forms
of location-based services and context-
aware computing, based on wearable
badges that could be used to pinpoint
one’s location inside a building. While
this vision may seem like old hat now,
one has to keep in mind that this work
was started only a few years after the
first Macintosh came out, and mobile
phones were still bulky affairs that were
yet to be popular.
The researchers at PARC were, by
and large, very enthusiastic about the
potential of ubiquitous computing.
However, the popular press was decid-
edly not. There were a number of nega-
Considering Privacy
Issues in the Context
of Google Glass
Jason Hong ponders why there has been so much negative press
coverage of Google Glass with regard to privacy, considering
the issue from two different perspectives.
ing some concept videos of what Glass
can offer, and by having lots of non-
developers try out the system. How-
ever, Google still has a long way to go
in conveying what value it can actually
offer today to everyday people.
This notion of the value proposi-
tion has been seen in the success and
failure of many groupware systems
as well. Jonathan Grudin, a scientist
at Microsoft Research, long ago ob-
served that those who do the work in
using a groupware system have to be
the same as those who get the bene-
fits, otherwise the system is likely to
fail or be subverted. My privacy corol-
lary is that when those who bear the
privacy risks do not benefit in pro-
portion to the perceived risks, the
technology is likely to fail. Right now,
the implicit narrative in the popular
press is that many people could be
surreptitiously monitored by users of
Google Glass at any time, and do not
perceive any kind of value in return.
Unless this perception is changed, it
is likely there will continue to be nega-
tive perceptions of Glass outside of
the core of early adopters.
Expectations of Privacy Change
The second perspective I will use for
thinking about Google Glass and pri-
vacy is that of expectations.
One of my favorite papers about ex-
pectations is by Leysia Palen, an HCI
researcher at the University of Colora-
do, Boulder. In 2000, Palen presented
a paper at the Computer Supported
Cooperative Work conference look-
ing at the behaviors and practices of
new mobile phone users. One finding
was that these new users were not par-
ticularly good at predicting what their
own attitudes and behaviors would be
a month after getting their first mo-
bile phone. For example, before they
got their mobile phone, many par-
ticipants reported being annoyed at
people who used their mobile phones
while driving or for casual chat in pub-
lic places like restaurants and movies.
However, just a few weeks later, many
of the participants were exhibiting
those same behaviors. Another inter-
esting finding was that participants
who had more exposure to mobile
phones through friends or colleagues
were better at predicting how they
would be using phones.
Many other technologies have
faced similar changes in expectations
over time. Warren and Brandeis’ fa-
mous definition of privacy as “the
right to be let alone” came about in
part because new cameras in the late
19th century made it possible to take
photographs in just several seconds,
invading “the sacred precincts of pri-
vate and domestic life.” Kodak camer-
as fared no better on the privacy front
in their early days (as noted in “The
Kodak Camera Starts a Craze” on the website):
The appearance of Eastman’s cam-
eras was so sudden and so pervasive
that the reaction in some quarters was
fear. A figure called the “camera fiend”
began to appear at beach resorts, prowl-
ing the premises until he could catch fe-
male bathers unawares. One resort felt
the trend so heavily that it posted a no-
er locations were no safer. For a time,
Kodak cameras were banned from the
Washington Monument. The “Hartford
Courant” sounded the alarm as well,
declaring that “the sedate citizen can’t
indulge in any hilariousness without
the risk of being caught in the act and
having his photograph passed around
among his Sunday School children.”
Similarly, in the book America
Calling, sociologist Claude Fischer
documented the social history of the
telephone. In one of my favorite pas-
sages, Fischer observed that at first,
many people actually objected to hav-
ing landline phones in their homes,
because it “permitted intrusion…by
solicitors, purveyors of inferior music,
eavesdropping operators, and even wire-
transmitted germs.”
While these examples may seem
quaint by modern standards, they rep-
resented real concerns that people had
at the time. In fact, it is worth pointing
out that many of these same problems
still exist (inferior music now comes
in the form of the Muzak you listen to
when put on hold). The main differ-
ence is that our expectations of how
these technologies will be used have
changed over many decades, as we
have adapted via changes in our social
norms and laws.
So there are two points here relevant
for Google Glass. The first is that we all
lack experience with how we might use
wearable computers, and so it is very
likely that most of our expectations will
be off the mark. The second is that ex-
pectations can change over time, as we
learn to adapt to the technology and its
affordances, but only if we start to see
real value in it.
It is also worth pointing out that
expectations can also change quite
rapidly and dramatically. Perhaps the
best example of this is the introduc-
tion of Facebook’s News Feed in 2006.
Before News Feed was rolled out, you
could only see a person’s status up-
dates by going to their individual pro-
file pages. What News Feed did was ag-
gregate all of those updates in a single
place. When News Feed was first made
public, people’s initial reactions were
predominantly negative, and often
viscerally so. Many Facebook groups
were formed denouncing News Feed,
and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
even went so far as to publicly respond
to all of the negative press. Facebook
stuck to its guns and continued to
push News Feed. In the course of just a
few months, a lot of the criticism died
out as people saw value in News Feed
and became used to it. Now, several
years later, I seriously doubt you could
find someone who would want to give
up News Feed.
Now, this does not mean people’s
privacy concerns always change in the
way you want, or the way you expect.
There are also plenty of examples
where products were killed or fea-
tures rolled back due to serious priva-
cy concerns. My main points here are
that we all have little experience with
wearable computers, expectations
of privacy can change, and perceived
value is a major factor in driving that
change. However, there remains a
very big gap in the community’s un-
derstanding of the best ways of miti-
gating these kinds of privacy issues
up front, and the best ways of manag-
ing and designing for those changes.
All I can say for sure is to buckle your
safety belts, because Google Glass is
just one of many of these kinds of big
changes in computing we will likely
see in the future, and it will be a wild,
scary, crazy, and exciting ride.
Jason Hong is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon
© 2013 ACM 0001-0782/13/11 $15.00