Google Glass: Issues for Wearers

May 15, 2014

Our seemingly limitless addiction to modern portable technology has always caused some degree of problems and resentment – from music leaking out of annoying tinny headphones on public transport to avoiding people trying to walk and text simultaneously on the pavement.

The latest personal wearable technology, however, has started to cause real problems which appear to threaten to lead to both potential civil and criminal proceedings – for both users and detractors.

The first Google Glass prototypes were released to many beta-testers in 2011, and a commercial version has been available in the US from April 2013 for $1,500. Due to the location of Google, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the city of San Francisco probably has the largest proportion of Google Glass users in the world, and so it is not surprising that the backlash has begun there and other cities up and down the West Coast.

Those who wear Google Glass and overstep generally acceptable privacy and etiquette limits are called “Glassholes” and are increasingly facing direct community reaction to their behaviour.

Here is a broad chronology of some of the more notorious Google Glass backlash incidents:


November 2012

Banned in some coffee houses in Seattle and San Francisco

July 2013

UK Department of Transport announcement that Google Glass is ‘likely’ to be banned for drivers

October 2013

San Diego driver was ticketed for driving with Google Glasses on. She pleaded Not Guilty on the basis that they were not switched on at the time and the case was dismissed through lack of evidence that she was distracted.

November 2013

A growing number of restaurants take a stand: a diner at the San Diego Lost Lake Café was ejected after he refused to remove his Google Glass device. The owner has banned the devices from his two establishments in the city. He claims that Google Glass goes against conventional dining etiquette, where using a mobile phone or other electronic devices while eating is considered rude.

February 2014

Technology writer Sarah Slocum was criticised in a San Francisco bar for wearing the spectacles. She turned on the recording device in an apparent effort to defuse the situation (doh!), but her actions had the opposite effect, and they were grabbed off her face.

April 2014

A warning was issued by SFPD about mugging after local journalist Kyle Russell lost his Google Glass when protesters during an anti-Google demonstration in San Francisco snatched his Google Glass and smashed it to the ground.

May 2014

San Francisco Stanford Court Renaissance Hotel offers Google Glass packages for guests – but with instructions on how to avoid being a “Glasshole”.


Other reactions include:

  • some ‘Gentlemen’s clubs’ in the USA have introduced rules to force patrons to check in their Google Glass devices as they enter a club
  • some US hospitals are drawing up new policies aimed at restricting the use of the devices
  • St Luke’s Hospital in New York said it was considering a temporary ban until it would learn more about how the devices will impact on patient privacy
  • FACT has issued advice that they should not be allowed in cinemas
  •  The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement has issued an advisory to the industry that said: “If these eyeglasses were worn during a poker game, they could be used to broadcast a patron’s hand to a confederate or otherwise used in a collusive manner”. It issued a directive to prohibit patrons from using Google Glass. Casinos in Nevada have also introduced similar rules.

Why all the fuss; what does Google Glass do?

Naturally, it runs a range of Google software such as Google Now, Google Maps, Google+, and Gmail as well as utilities for taking photographs and videos. There is also a small, but growing, range of third-party apps for utilities such as news, facial recognition, exercising, photo manipulation, translation, and sharing to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

I played with a Google Glass for about 10 minutes once, and – apart from simple fun – sensible potential use of a Glass seemed to me to include taking the odd photo and (especially) navigating your way around a city. As for professional use; I can see applications for in-court display of research by juniors, and in conducting commercial negotiations.

So; why the backlash? The key issue appears to be that other non-Glass users appear to resent the very possibility that – unbeknownst to them – the Google Glass wearer might be taking their photo, recording a video of them, or even using facial recognition to identify them.

As Dan Tench, of Olswang (who is co-ordinating a privacy lawsuit against Google) said: ‘This is the ultimate snooper’s gizmo. If you walk around with a video camera filming, it’s obvious what you’re doing, but with Google Glass, it’s much, much more invasive.’

This sentiment is echoed by the Stop The Cyborgs organisation, that has its own Web site and provides ‘Glass Ban’ graphics for cafés and restaurants. Their credo is that:

We are mainly technology people so we are definitely not ‘anti tech’.  We are not calling for a complete government ban on wearable tech like glass. Nor do we believe that you shouldn’t wear it at all. Rather we want to help define sensible norms around where people do or don’t wear devices; encourage individual people to think about the social impact of new technologies; and to discourage the normalisation of surveillance.

They summarise their objections thus:

1.       Non-users cannot tell what the user’s device is doing: a similar point to Dan Tench’s.

2.       Users can feel devices are part of their extended body: and take offence when they are asked to ‘look’ somewhere else in a way that they would not if they were asked not to ‘point’ their iPhone at another person.

3.       Individual becomes part of the platform: a more complex objection that I haven’t got time to go into here .

So, a key objection emerging is that no-one else knows if you are using your Google Glass to film them, because they can’t tell if you are, or even if it is switched on. In the UK there appears to be a commonly held believe that there is a general legal right not to be photographed in a public place; there isn’t. There will be commercial restrictions about how you can exploit a photograph, and an owner of private property can impose restrictions, but that is somewhat different. On the other hand, such legal niceties will pale into insignificance if you are faced with an irate parent who thinks that you might have been photographing his children. Especially if he’s bigger than you.

Then there is the general objection in principal to Google’s all pervasive technology, and its history of rather cavalier attitude to data privacy, such as ‘accidental’ harvesting of local wi-fi data while recording Street View pictures, and generating a Google Buzz Social Network automagically from your list of personal contacts. One of the ‘rage removals’ was at an anti-Google rally. One does wonder, however, why the wearer thought that was a good event to attend in the circumstances.

Much new technology causes a backlash when it is first introduced, and before it becomes a mass-market device – the telephone was originally banned from barrister’s chambers, cameras were banned from public places etc.

I have no answers for these issues. We may simply be faced with a period of familiarisation which will lead to us all living happily with each other.

But, as the critics point out, this technology is obvious and invasive: it is always there (you have to get a SmartPhone ‘out’), it is easily ‘grabbable’, and most people cannot afford one. And it seems to just annoy some people. Bear in mind that two decades later, the man shouting loudly into his mobile phone on the train still annoys the hell out of most people, and can still generate an audience reaction. So this period of familiarisation might be with us for a while.


Neil Cameron is a consultant at Neil Cameron Consulting Group and is a former Chair of SCL: This article is an edited version of a blog post on the Neil Cameron Consulting Group’s site.