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Google on Glass privacy: 'If I'm recording you, I have to stare at you'

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Google Glass (STOCK)
Google Glass (STOCK)

The team behind Google Glass defended its creation against privacy worries in a Google I/O fireside chat with developers on Thursday. When asked what the privacy implications of Glass' head-mounted display and camera are, Steve Lee, Glass' product director, said the device was built to alleviate these concerns before it even shipped.

"Privacy was top of mind as we designed the product," Lee said, adding that he's proud of the way his team has designed Glass. Early prototypes covered a user's eyes rather than placing the display above the eye. But Google discovered quickly how important eye contact is to Glass, he said. "You'll know when someone with Glass is paying attention to you," Lee said. "If you're looking at Glass, you're looking up."

"If you walk into a restroom and someone's just looking at you — I don't know about you but I'm getting the hell out of there."

The built-in camera raises its own, unique set of privacy questions, the Glass team acknowledged. "If I'm recording you, I have to stare at you — as a human being. And when someone is staring at you, you have to notice," said Charles Mendis, an engineer on the Glass team. "If you walk into a restroom and someone's just looking at you — I don't know about you but I'm getting the hell out of there."

While Lee and Mendis were adamant in their stance that there will be no question when someone is snapping a photo or shooting video with Glass, the fact is that you can use the headset without looking at someone. Your eyes can be pointed away, or even closed, if that's what you want to do. Still, Lee said that new social behaviors are arising as Glass is starting to get out into the world. "That's why taking a picture has clear social cues — raise your hand or speak to Glass," he said, adding that these are very clear signals to those around you that you're doing something with Glass. Lee also noted that whenever Glass' display is active, it lights up, not just for the user to see, but for observers as well. "Our design is to ensure the display is active when Glass is active," he said. "That will be part of our GDK and part of our policy, so apps won't be permitted that don't do that."

Developers have asked how secure Glass will be with photos, videos and other user data. The Glass Explorer Edition is currently easily hackable, to toy around with and load up experimental apps. So much so that in earlier sessions, some developers mentioned that they weren't wearing their headsets to I/O over security fears. Lee said that the device won't easily expose user data. "We take the trust and reliability of our software very seriously, so by design that's not intended," Lee said of hacking Glass.

Nilay Patel contributed to this report.