How Google Glass Is Redefining Tech Etiquette

Joel Reidenberg in NBC News, February 24, 2014

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When it comes to Google Glass, no one can see eye-to-eye.

From bars to boardwalks, courtrooms to crosswalks, the peculiar eyewear designed by the search giant is driving what some advocates say are long overdue conversations about etiquette and social norms in an age when people can walk around with an Internet-wired camera strapped to their craniums.

Google is aware of the polarizing effect of its smart spectacles, which let users snap photos, shoot video and perform lots of other tasks in front of their eyes. This week the company released an etiquette guide explaining how users can avoid being labeled a "Glasshole" when strutting around with the headware.

A how-not-to-be-a-jerk guidebook may be helpful to the tens of thousands of current Glass users -- but the parameters were designed by Google, not society as a whole. And it's hardly a legal boundary.

"Because we haven't had this conversation, companies like Google get to dictate our privacy norms," said Brad Shear, a Maryland-based lawyer who focuses in part on tech and privacy issues. "Once these devices are everywhere, they drive the conversation before we can plan."

The potential legal issues around Glass and its ilk are numerous, Shear said: "Copyright issues if someone tapes in a movie theater. Invasion of privacy. Peeping Tom laws. HIPAA problems with Glass in a doctor's office. Issues with taping kids."

But Glass aficionados argue Glass itself doesn't change much about any those scenarios from a privacy standpoint: Cameras dot the streets and shops of many cities as it is, and in any case, they could just as easily record anything Glass captures on smartphones and cameras.

The early Glass Explorers have stayed true to their name. Some intentionally set out to push the limits, while others have suddenly found themselves at the center of the developing debate.

To the legal experts, that simply highlights how sorely we need to develop guidelines around such technology.

"We don’t have very robust information privacy laws in the United States," said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University. "That is and has been a problem. We haven't even talked about what happens to all of this data that we're storing."

Google Glass communications manager Anna Richardson White told NBC News: "With any new technology, there are going to be new questions that arise. The whole point of the 'Explorer' program is that we have a smaller group of people try it out, learn about it and teach others."

As the debate takes shape, those early Glass "Explorers," as the company calls them, have stayed true to their name. Some intentionally set out to push the limits, while others have suddenly found themselves at the center of the developing debate. Either way, it's likely they will continue to provide plenty of fodder for discussion -- and possibly the courts.

Fistfights and casinos

One such explorer is Chris Barrett, the CEO and founder of PRServe, a public relations firm that focuses on startups.

"If I was going to use Glass, I wanted to push the limit," Barrett said. "I felt like I had some kind of power, like a job handed to me. A duty to find out what can happen and what's acceptable."

In June 2013 Barrett handed over $1,650 and picked up his Glass — "charcoal, so as not to be too obvious" — in New York City. He and his new device made headlines just a few weeks later at the Jersey shore on the Fourth of July.

Barrett was walking along the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J., when he stumbled upon a huge fight, which he immediately began filming with Glass:

Ever the PR professional, Barrett tipped off journalists to the story. It was one of the first real-world situations to spur a nationwide discussion about Glass and privacy — Barrett's take: "You're on the boardwalk, and every major city tapes you anyway" — and it inspired Barrett to push the limits further.

That same week, Barrett walked into New Jersey casinos wearing Glass to find out what would happen. Security said nothing, so he walked up to a roulette table where the dealer told him he couldn't wear the device while playing.

The first Glass traffic ticket

While Barrett was taping fistfights and goading casino dealers, fellow Glass Explorer Cecilia Abadie was about to become an unwitting test case on the other side of the country.

Abadie bought Glass in May 2013, and since then, she has worn it "pretty much every moment of my waking life. It has become part of me."

That became a problem in October, when a police officer pulled over Abadie when she was wearing Glass while driving on a San Diego freeway. She was allegedly speeding, but the officer also wrote her a citation for using Glass — although she said it wasn't activated.

It's believed to be the first such case involving Glass. Last month, a traffic court threw out the citation because the officer did not provide evidence that Abadie was actually using Glass as she drove.

Abadie now realizes that to be an early adopter of Glass is to "take risks both legally and socially." For her, Glass has become both a beloved gadget and a way of life: She is chief technology officer and co-founder of Lynxfit, a company that's working on a fitness companion for Glass.

"People tend to forget the historical view, which is that almost any new camera has sparked questions about privacy. After the first consumer-focused Kodak camera came out, some beaches banned them."

Barrett, meanwhile, barely uses Glass now. He enjoyed the pioneer role for a few months, demonstrating the device to "about 300 to 400" people — including rocker Jon Bon Jovi — interested in the strange device on his head. He taped kayak trips and workout sessions. He drove 1,500 miles through the summer and fall of 2013, wearing Glass the entire time.

But within a few months, his usage dropped off quickly. He didn't even pull Glass out of his backpack when attended shows like the Dublin Web Summit and the Sundance Film Festival. He's not really sure what changed. Perhaps the novelty wore off?

Because Barrett had become one of the "faces" of Google Glass, his reveal this month that the device sometimes gives him headaches became headline news, with outlets saying he had become disillusioned.

But that's not it, Barrett said: "There's just no app on Google Glass that makes me want to put it on every day."

That's what developers like Abadie, who calls her early Glass experience "perhaps the great experiment of my life," are hoping to create. Barrett doesn't think Glass will ever become a constant presence in most people's lives, activated on dates and at concerts.

Angela McIntyre, a research director for tech-focused firm Gartner who covers wearable devices, said the entire debate may seem quaint someday.

"People tend to forget the historical view, which is that almost any new camera has sparked questions about privacy," McIntyre said.

"After the first consumer-focused Kodak camera came out, some beaches banned them," she added. "Then with smartphones, we were concerned about the gym and bathrooms. But we don't give them a thought now. They're just part of our world."