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European Commission and others question Google about Glass privacy issues

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Google Glass (STOCK)
Google Glass (STOCK)

The European Commission and officials in several countries are asking Google executive Eric Schmidt whether Google is equipped to deal with the privacy implications of its Glass heads-up display. In an open letter, privacy commissioners from Israel, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as a representative of the EU's privacy-focused Article 29 Working Party, raised questions about Project Glass' privacy policy and asked whether they could test its capabilities first-hand.

"To date, what information we have about Google Glass ... largely comes from media reports, which contain a great deal of speculation, as well as Google's own publicizing of the device," wrote the officials. Though Google has created guidelines, the letter called them merely a first step, noting that they "appear to be largely related to advertising within Glass." Since the product's inception, two major issues have been identified: Glass' potential to surreptitiously photograph or record subjects and the possibility of simple facial recognition — something European privacy authorities have fought when companies like Facebook implemented it.

"To date, what information we have about Google Glass ... largely comes from media reports."

So far, Google has rejected any apps that use facial recognition, and a "recording" light signals that the user is taking pictures. But since the technical capabilities are there, it's possible to root the device and enable both these features. Likewise, officials worry about what Google itself is collecting, and what it's sending to third-party developers or (eventually) advertisers. Much of the letter, however, is aimed at figuring out what Google intends to do in the future, especially after Glass is no longer in a tightly controlled beta program.

"We understand that other companies are developing similar products, but you are a leader in this area, the first to test your product 'in the wild' so to speak, and the first to confront the ethical issues that such a product entails," says the letter. "Most of the data protection authorities listed below have not been approached by your company to discuss any of these issues in detail."

The European Commission and other signatories of the letter are far from the first to raise these questions. After a number of writers and privacy advocates raised concerns about Google Glass, Congress asked Larry Page whether Glass would "infringe on the privacy of the average American." Google hasn't always been open about the data it collects; it recently weathered multiple lawsuits after it was revealed that Street View cars had been secretly collecting information from unsecured Wi-Fi networks as they drove. And with Glass, it's dealing with an even more intimate kind of data collection.