Monday, 30 June 2014

Augmented reality glasses face the privacy test

An adverse reaction to Google Glass is underway. It’s not just the anecdotes about it being banned from bars, restaurants and cinemas and police dishing out traffic tickets, but the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has blogged that it’s going to cause problems and warned companies that if they use the technology they have to be careful about privacy and data protection.

Even some of the evangelists for Google Glass acknowledged early on that it would run into opposition, and as more people become aware of its camera function there are going to be a lot of tetchy responses to seeing it in public.

It’s important not to talk solely about Google Glass when it comes to augmented reality glasses. As I wrote a few months back in a white paper for the BCS, there are other companies making glasses that provide data to wearers to guide them through a task, and these have already found early adopters in work from warehousing to healthcare. There is a vast potential for supporting people in their work and it would be a waste if it’s squashed by anxieties over privacy.

In fact, there are a lot of work environments in which it shouldn’t be an issue. Directing a worker in a warehouse or providing guidance for surgery takes place in a closed space where there is no threat of trawling for images through the camera on AR glasses. There’s no reason why this part of the market shouldn’t grow as the technology is refined.

But it won’t be possible to draw a clear line between a closed work environment and the public realm. Organisations are already making use of AR on tablets in fields such as civil engineering, architecture and retail, and there’s going to be strong temptation to experiment with AR glasses if there’s a big advantage in keeping hands free.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario when someone has a legitimate business use for AR glasses in a public space, receiving and feeding back information on the environment while making notes on another device, or operating a machine or vehicle. It’s just as easy to imagine someone else taking offence at their presence being recorded, especially on a device that can stream the image straight into a corporate data store.

Can you draw a clear line between the two? You can have arguments about what constitutes a public space, or if you can still violate someone’s privacy when they’ve entered an organisation’s space. And there are going to be legitimate business reasons, often around public services, for using AR glasses on the street, in a park, in a place where crowds gather. Saying these are off limits would deprive planners and emergency service teams among others of a potentially valuable tool.

I don’t think there are clear answers to this, and it’s going to take time, more familiarity and a good few arguments before a consensus on acceptable usage and a clear legal line emerges. But the ICO has been right to tell organisations to at least begin thinking about what’s acceptable, and make it clear that any information gathered through AR glasses is subject to the same laws as any other data.

Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in how people react the first time I’m in a pub and someone walks in wearing Google Glass.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

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