Evan Schuman: Fear of Glass

Google Glass is just the latest technological advance to elicit fear and dread in some quarters, including law enforcement

Every time there is a big change in technology, consumers and even law enforcement don't know what to make of it, so they react by overreacting. On Saturday (Jan. 18), we saw the latest example when the Department of Homeland Security met Google Glass.

On that day, a man and his wife went to an AMC theater at the Easton Mall in Columbus, Ohio. Because the moviegoer -- who has asked that his name be kept out of the story -- has added his prescription lenses to his Google Glass, he wears it all the time, including on this Saturday night outing to see Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

In the middle of the movie, he said, a Homeland Security agent yanked his glasses off and pulled him and his wife out of the theater. Several police officers were standing by, the man told The Gadgeteer, as he tried to explain to the agent that he was "holding rather expensive hardware that cost me $1,500 for Google Glass and more than $600 for the prescription glasses. The response was that I was searched and more stuff was taken away from me. Specifically, my personal phone, my work phone -- both of which were turned off -- and my wallet."

The crime he was suspected of? Recording the movie with Glass, possibly with the intent to sell it. In other words, piracy. The man saw an easy way to prove his innocence: He asked the agents to plug his glasses into a computer so that they could see that he had filmed nothing. They refused and proceeded to interrogate him -- while detaining his wife in a separate room -- for two hours. Finally, someone decided they might want to look at the Glass output after all -- and discovered that nothing was there. Oops! No apology, of course, but the theater gave him four movie passes. (Gosh, can't imagine him not jumping at the opportunity to use those soon.)

This all was certainly an overreaction. If you've never had to wear corrective lenses, you might not realize how disorienting it can be to have your glasses removed against your will. Ripping someone's glasses off is highly invasive. All right, it's true that Google Glass is worn by people who don't need corrective lenses. But that doesn't make it right to assume that is the case. Could we make it a rule that law enforcement not mess with people's assistive devices? No yanking away wheelchairs, grabbing crutches or removing hearing aids, OK?

Ah, well, the Glass device was evidence, so that perhaps makes a difference. I don't think so, though. Maybe the agent was afraid that the moviegoer could erase any video if the device were left in place. Understood, but a better approach would be to say at the outset, "I'm an agent with DHS. I need you to come with me. Do not touch the device on your head." Now, maybe those other devices could be evidence in some cases. A wheelchair bomb is certainly within the realm of possibility. With good reason to suspect such a thing (after a scan at airport security, for example), then law enforcement would be justified in quickly separating the person from the device. But let's not miss the huge glaring difference between a case such as that and the Columbus incident: No lives were at stake in the movie theater.

The Shadow Recruit incident followed one in which a California woman was charged with distracted driving after she was spotted driving while wearing Google Glass. That charge was dismissed in court because it couldn't be proved that Glass had been turned on while she was driving.

None of this is new, really. We see similar things whenever the advance of technology outpaces people's ability to adapt. Do you remember when the Internet was first starting to spread among the general population? There was outrage at the time that military servers were storing thousands of naughty pictures. What was that newfangled Internet thingy unleashing? Many things, but in the case of the X-rated material on the military servers, that was a result of personnel wanting access to Usenet newsgroups. As many of you probably recall, a server used to access a newsgroup in those days had to download all of the group discussions and postings. I also remember that there once were calls to ban Web access because it could be used to facilitate crimes -- but no accompanying attempt to ban analog phone lines, even though they could be used to coordinate bank robberies or make obscene phone calls. Everyone was comfortable with the telephone by then and knew that its benefits far outweighed such potential dangers. But the Web? Unknown territory. Nonetheless, this sort of thing just keeps happening. Just this week, I told you about someone who was jailed because police didn't understand how Google+ works.

My point is not that law enforcement or people in general are stupid. Rather, it is all too easy to let fear of the unfamiliar overrule reason. I am not the only person who has noticed this, of course. In fact, the Columbus situation reminds me of a classic Doonesbury comic strip, published several weeks after 9/11, depicting FBI agents overreacting when they encounter an American of Middle Eastern ancsestry who's attending Pilot school. (There's a reason I've capitalized the word "Pilot," but I'll let you take a look at the cartoon to get the joke.)

And I do sense fear of wearables in this statement from AMC spokesperson Ryan Noonan: "While we're huge fans of technology and innovation, wearing a device that has the capability to record video is not appropriate at the movie theater." The moviegoer himself said something that acknowledges that such a fear is pervasive and implies that users of unfamiliar technology should accommodate it: "I realize it's stupid to have a device with a camera pointed at the screen. But I didn't even think of it because I don't use Google Glass to record other people."

So the folks at AMC don't like its customers wearing devices with the capability of recording video. I wonder how they feel about customers carrying devices with that capability. Oh, wait. They're apparently fine with that, since probably half of the audience for Shadow Recruit was carrying a smartphone. I haven't heard anyone suggest that smartphones be checked at the door.

Perhaps the managers of movie theaters should find out a bit more about Glass. Brian Katz, the director of mobile innovation at a large pharmaceutical company who has been using Glass for about three months, said that the current version of the device simply wouldn't work well for pirating a motion picture, mostly due to video quality issues.

"It's a very wide-angle lens. It's not going to look great," Katz said. "I don't think anyone would want to watch it. The person's head has to be perfectly still for more than two hours. The camera is on your head, so the picture moves every time you move."

And Katz noted that there is a practical reason why Glass would be a terrible choice for surreptitious video capture in a movie theater. "You can easily tell when someone is recording, because the screen lights up. In a dark theater, it would be obvious," he said.

In any case, this kind of theater recording doesn't even make much sense anymore, given that there are so many high-quality digital recordings making the rounds -- to movie theaters, awards shows and film critics. They are an infinitely superior source for bootleg copies.

Let me be clear about something: I see piracy as a serious issue. In fact, I have a personal bias against it. For years, I owned a site that sold premium content. Every time someone took one of our copyrighted stories and posted it on a website, I lost money, because readers wouldn't subscribe if they believed they could just do a Google search and find our content somewhere else. I have no sympathy for movie pirates, and I understand the importance of enforcing copyright laws.

That said, the invasion of personal liberty has to be in proportion to the danger of the alleged criminal act. Possessing a legal device should not get a person into trouble. The device shouldn't be forcibly removed unless it's a clear and present danger of bodily harm to others, or if there is a realistic possibility that evidence will be destroyed, and unless there is no less intrusive way to separate the person and the device. In less serious situations, it shouldn't be confiscated even temporarily unless a person takes the device into a place that has specifically banned such devices -- say, for example, a gun in a bar in a state where that is illegal, or a camera in a museum that has posted notices that cameras are not allowed. But if a museum has no explicitly stated rule against carrying cameras, no one should be interrogated because he carried a camera into that museum and accused of photographing the artworks. And the accusation should be based on something more than the fact that the person had a camera on his person; some real evidence is called for. Similarly, of course, if a theater has no explicitly stated rule against Glass, no one should be interrogated for wearing Glass into that theater and accused of movie piracy.

By the way, if someone at that movie theater on Saturday night had a gun on his person, law enforcement would not have confiscated it. Packing heat in a movie theater is perfectly legal in Ohio. But Google Glass? Much too dangerous!

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every Tuesday.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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