Google Bars Facial Recognition From Glass

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Facial recognition will not be permitted on Google Glass for the time being, while Google addresses privacy fears

Google has said it will bar facial recognition features from its head-mounted computer, Google Glass, for the time being. The move comes in response to “concern” from the public, according to the company.

“Many have expressed both interest and concern around the possibilities of facial recognition in Glass,” Google said in a statement. “As Google has said for several years, we won’t add facial recognition features to our products without having strong privacy protections in place. With that in mind, we won’t be approving any facial recognition Glassware at this time.”

Privacy questions

Google has been pilot-testing Glass with developers and some members of the public since its announcement at the Google I/O conference last year, under what it calls the Explorer Programme.

google-london-officeWhile the company has yet to officially indicate when Glass might be made generally available, the device has already raised questions from several quarters, including amongst privacy advocates concerned that it could be used for covert filming.

In May, the US Congress’ Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus addressed a letter to Google chief executive Larry Page addressing a number of privacy questions, including whether Glass permits facial recognition and the cross-referencing of images with other data sources. A response from Google is expected by 14 June, but Google’s message on facial recognition appears to have been prompted by the Congressional letter.

The company updated its developer policy to reflect its facial recognition stance. A section of the policy addressing what is and isn’t permitted in Glass software now indicates that developers may not “use the camera or microphone to cross-reference and immediately present personal information identifying anyone other than the user, including use cases such as facial recognition and voice print”, adding that applications which do so will not be approved.

Covert filming

Another section of the policy prohibits software that allows Glass’ camera to operate while the device’s display is switched off. The clause is meant to make covert filming more difficult, since when the display is in use it is visible to those nearby.

Facial recognition start-up Lambda Labs last month adapted its open source facial recognition API for use with Glass. A beta-test version of the API was released last year for other platforms and is in use by about 1,000 developers, according to Lambda.

Google is no stranger to controversies involving privacy, with perhaps the best-known of these being the collection of personal data via Wi-Fi networks by cars involved in taking photographs for Google Maps’ StreetView feature. The scandal has cost Google millions to date, including a €145,000 (£124,000) fine handed down by the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information in April.

Last month, Google announced four new apps for Glass, including those from social networks Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, a developer demonstrated the security risks for users of Glass, indicating how malicious actors could take advantage of some security shortcomings in Glass to spy on users.

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