“Google Glass will test the right to privacy versus the First Amendment [of the US constitution],” said Bradley Shear, a social media expert at George Washington University.
Google has often been at the forefront of privacy issues. In 2004, it began a free e-mail service, making money by generating ads against the content. Two dozen privacy groups protested. Regulators were urged to probe if eavesdropping laws were being violated.
For better or worse, people got used to the idea and the protests quickly dissipated — Gmail now has more than 425 million users.
In a more recent episode, the company’s unauthorized data collection during its Street View mapping project prompted government investigations in a dozen countries.
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Google takes the attitude that people should have nothing to hide from intrusive technology.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” then-chief executive Eric Schmidt said in 2009.
Glass is a major step in Google’s efforts to diversify beyond search and potentially, extremely lucrative. Piper Jaffray, an analyst firm, estimates that wearable technology and another major initiative, self-driving cars, could be a US$500 billion opportunity for the company.
In the shorter term, forecasting firm IHS estimates that shipments of smart glasses, led by Google Glass, could be as many as 6.6 million in three years.
Thad Starner, a pioneer of wearable computing who is a technical adviser to the Glass team, said he thinks concerns about disruption are overblown.
“Asocial people will be able to find a way to do asocial things with this technology, but on average people like to maintain the social contract,” Starner said.
He added that he and colleagues had experimented with Glass-type devices for years “and I can’t think of a single instance where something bad has happened.”
However, an incident at a Silicon Valley event shows the way that increasing ease in capturing a moment can lead to problems, even if unintentionally.
Adria Richards, who worked for Colorado e-mail company SendGrid, was offended by the jokes two men sitting behind her at the PyCon developers conference were cracking. She posted a picture of them on Twitter with the mildly reproving comment: “Not cool.”
One of the men, who has not been identified, was immediately fired by his employer, PlayHaven.
“There is another side to this story,” he wrote on a hacking site, saying it was barely a lame sexual joke. “She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”
Critics lashed out at Richards, using language much more offensive than the two men used. SendGrid was hacked. The company dismissed Richards, saying the uproar over her conduct “put our business in danger.”
“I don’t think anyone who was part of what happened at PyCon that day could possibly have imagined how this issue would have exploded into the public consciousness,” Richards said later.
She has not posted on Twitter since.