Will Google Glass Have Facial Recognition? Congress Wants to Know.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 17 2013 10:51 AM

Will Google Glass Have Facial Recognition? Congress Wants to Know.

Blogger Robert Scoble wearing Google Glass.
Blogger Robert Scoble wearing Google Glass.

Photo by Ole Spata/AFP/Getty Images

A flurry of alarmist articles about the privacy implications of Google Glass has caught the attention of the Congress’ Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus. The group, led by Texas Republican Joe Barton, sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Thursday. “We are curious whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of the average American,” they wrote. And they listed eight questions they want answered by June 14 at the latest. Here are some of the queries:

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

  • Will Glass collect data from users without their consent?
  • How will Google protect the privacy of non-users?
  • Will Glass have facial recognition capabilities? If so, will people be able to opt out?
  • Will Google consider privacy in deciding whether to approve third-party apps?
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Some are easily answered. No doubt Google will consider privacy in deciding whether to approve third-party apps—the question is how careful it will be and where it will draw the line. And surely the company does not plan on collecting user data without their consent—the real issue is whether users will understand exactly what they’re consenting to when they sign the company’s privacy policy and user agreements.

To its credit, the committee does not seem to be freaking out about the possibility of Glass being used as a surreptitious recording device. I explained in depth last week why such fears are overblown.

Instead, the committee homes in on facial recognition as the device’s biggest potential privacy issue. Indeed, the prospect of a Glass app that could immediately pull up the name and personal information of anyone you look at would represent a significant new overlap between people’s online and offline lives.

Coincidentally, Google addressed this very issue in a fireside chat at its I/O conference on Friday—sort of. AllThingsD reports that Google Glass product director Steve Lee said of facial recognition, “We’ve definitely experimented with it, but it’s not in the product today. … I can imagine it existing.”

It will be interesting to see whether Google offers anything more concrete in its response to Congress—and, if not, whether the Congressional privacy hawks find that vague answer satisfactory.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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