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Why Google Glass is the world’s worst surveillance device.

A visitor of the 'NEXT Berlin' conference tries out the Google Glass on April 24, 2013 in Berlin. 'NEXT Berlin' describes itself as 'a meeting place for the European digital industry'.
Is that a camera on your face or are you just happy to see me?

Photo by Ole Spata/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine a surveillance device that you could wear on your body all day without anyone being the wiser. Suppose it could record audio and video and snap photographs instantly and silently, storing the data in a tiny embedded memory chip. Out on the street, in the subway, at a bar or cafe, people would never know whether the stranger next to them was secretly recording their every move.

Privacy nightmare, right?

In fact, the device already exists. It’s called “Baseball Cap With Hidden Spy Camera and Recorder,” and it’s on sale for $199.95 at the online U-Spy Store. Not into the ball-cap look? Try slipping the “Pen Hidden Spy Camera With Motion Activated Recording” into your breast pocket. No breast pocket? No problem. You can capture the video on these surprisingly stylish “Glasses With Hidden Spy Camera and Recorder” and pick up the audio on that high-tech surveillance device that you’re already carrying around in your pocket or purse: your smartphone.

Oh, I suppose you could also try using Google Glass, which offers some of the same capabilities for close to 10 times the price. (That’s if you can get your hands on it at all. For now, it’s only available to a select group of software developers and Glass Explorer contest winners.) It has been billed in the media as “the ultimate creepy stalker toy,” “the end of privacy,” and “an evil, evil device.” It’s easy to see why people would think Glass is antithetical to privacy, especially if they’ve never used it. After all, the camera is right there on your face. But after talking to Google employees and privacy experts, observing the device “in the wild,” and trying it myself, I’ve reached an inescapable conclusion: Google Glass makes a terrible spy tool.

First off, from the instant you slip Google Glass over your ears, you become the most conspicuous person in any room. Heads turn. Eyes squint. Some people register confusion. Others break into excited smiles or hostile grimaces. What pretty much no one does, at least at this early juncture, is ignore you and continue to go about his or her business. For someone whose goal is to snoop on people as they go about their business, that is likely to prove a rather frustrating obstacle.

The second vexing problem is that it’s hard to get Glass to snap a photo or start recording without drawing even more attention to yourself. The default way to activate the device is by saying out loud, “OK, Glass.” If people weren’t already staring at you just for wearing the gawky camera-glasses, rest assured they will once you start barking commands at your own face. And it will probably not help your cause if the next words out of your mouth are “take a photo” or “record a video.”

True, there are slightly less obtrusive ways to signal your intentions to the device. Instead of saying “OK, Glass” to activate it, you can jerk your head skyward, then quickly return your gaze to a normal level. I tried this three times before I succeeded, and I’m pretty sure it made me look like a deranged goose. But no doubt you could get the hang of it with a little practice. Next, you can reach up and pinch a tiny, difficult-to-locate button on the frame to snap a photo or hold it down to begin recording. By default, though, the camera will record for only 10 seconds at a time. You have to reach up and pinch that button one more time if you want it to keep going.

If you succeed in pulling off each of those steps without attracting a crowd of concerned onlookers, congratulations. You’re now ready to record surreptitious spy video of absolutely anyone you choose, simply by staring directly at them the whole time with your weird electronic eye. Oh, I did mention that the glass prism in front of your face will be brightly lit while you’re recording, right? That’s right: Glass’ screen is, as its name might imply, transparent. When it’s active, not only can people see the glow of the display through the glass—they can actually make out exactly what you’re doing if they look closely enough. So if you don’t want to give away the game, you’d better stand a fair distance from your subject. Not too far, though—Glass’ camera doesn’t zoom.

Before I tried it out, I imagined Glass as a sort of modern-day Memex, a device that could stay on all the time, passively observing and recording everything you do and see. If Moore’s Law holds up, it is conceivable that someone will invent such a device in the future. But Glass is not that device right now. Nor will it be anytime soon, the company told me. Its battery is sufficient to record for about half an hour, tops, and its memory is a modest 12 gigabytes. To be fair, that’s much better than your average baseball-cap-cam. But it’s a far cry from my 64GB iPhone 5, which could secretly record audio all day from my pocket if I wanted it to.

To Thad Starner, a wearable-computing pioneer and computer science professor at Georgia Tech, that makes today’s smartphones far more effective as surveillance tools than Glass will ever be. Starner has worked with Google on the Glass project since early in the design process. He told me privacy has been a goal from the start, and the team intentionally built in “social cues” like the glow of the video screen to alert people that the device is active.

My own brief experience with Glass suggests they’ve succeeded. For better or worse, it’s utterly obvious when someone is using the device, as they’re constantly fiddling with the buttons and glancing upward and to the right to look at the screen. And when I turned on the video recorder as casually as possible in the course of a conversation with a Google employee, his eyes went straight to the suddenly lit screen, and he broke into a grin. “I see what you’re doing,” he said.

Now, there are ways that truly determined techies could turn Glass into a passable spy camera. In the past two weeks, hackers everywhere who are part of the Glass Explorer beta test have been competing to do just that. One computer whiz rooted the device so that the screen would stay off during recording. That renders recording almost as seamless as it would be with a hat-cam, except for the part where you’re still wearing the camera on your face. Another developer came up with an app that lets you snap a picture with a wink, making it, in the words of the Atlantic Wire, “a stalker’s dream.” I assumed a stalker’s dream would be to observe someone without having to stare them in the face and wink at them, but what do I know.

In any case, these types of hacks are a big part of the reason Google launched an extensive Explorer program instead of putting Glass on the shelves of Best Buy. It wants to understand the loopholes as thoroughly as possible so it can take steps to plug them before releasing a product to the public. As it turns out, though, the scare stories about “the end of privacy” have prompted a backlash against the device, with people dubbing its wearers “Glassholes” and businesses banishing them from the premises. That’s just one more reason why someone who actually wanted to spy on people would probably stay as far from Glass as possible.

It’s true that Glass users won’t stand out so much if the device becomes ubiquitous. At the same time, though, we’ll also become more attuned to the cues that tell us when and how someone is using it. Just as we’d raise our eyebrows today at a man holding out his smartphone with the camera pointed in our direction, we’ll take instant notice if we see someone cock her head and pinch the frame of Glass while looking right at us. Either way, though, we should keep in mind that the more serious privacy threats are likely to be out of sight entirely—in the sky, for instance, or on the other end of our Internet connection. Meanwhile, the two-bit creeps that walk among us are likely to have their recording equipment stashed in a bag, in a pocket, or under their clothes—anywhere but on their face.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.