Michael Chertoff on Google Glass

Interesting op-ed by former DHS head Michael Chertoff on the privacy risks of Google Glass.

Now imagine that millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them. And imagine that these devices upload the data to large-scale commercial enterprises that are able to collect the recordings from each and every American and integrate them together to form a minute-by-minute tracking of the activities of millions.

That is almost precisely the vision of the future that lies directly ahead of us. Not, of course, with wearable drones but with wearable Internet-connected equipment. This new technology—whether in the form of glasses or watches—may unobtrusively capture video data in real time, store it in the cloud and allow for it to be analyzed.

It’s not unusual for government officials—the very people we disagree with regarding civil liberties issues—to agree with us on consumer privacy issues. But don’t forget that this person advocated for full-body scanners at airports while on the payroll of a scanner company.

One of the points he makes, that the data collected from Google Glass will become part of Google’s vast sensory network, echoes something I’ve heard Marc Rotenberg at EPIC say: this whole thing would be a lot less scary if the glasses were sold by a company like Brookstone.

The ACLU comments on the essay.

Posted on May 6, 2013 at 1:17 PM46 Comments


Julien Couvreur May 6, 2013 1:32 PM

One thing worth thinking about is this dilemma is magnified in public space (as opposed to privately owned spaces).

You can have restaurants or bars that allow Glass, and some that ban it (some already did). The owner sets rules and patrons choose which service they prefer. The same applies for malls, workplaces, etc.

But in public spaces (streets, government buildings, …), such diversity of rule is not an option, so we’ll have endless political fights about which rule to force on all.
It was an important realization for me to see how unowned spaces lead to more conflict.

Anyways, as far as I am concerned, if I can see something, the default is that I should be allowed to record it and talk about it.
This is analogous to than having a super photographic memory.
If you want me not to, then my consent is needed.

Matt May 6, 2013 1:44 PM

The fundamental underpinning of a stable society is to regulate power. The more power an entity has, the more it has to be regulated to avoid that power being abused.

We’ve got pretty good (but not good enough) mechanisms in place to regulate the power of government; but we have severely insufficient mechanisms in place to regulate the power of non-government entities, specifically corporations.

History doesn’t lead me to expect Google to do anything particularly heinous with their data, but that doesn’t mean they won’t, or that that data won’t get taken by other, less ethical entities. What we need is strong laws regulating or prohibiting any entity from collecting significant quantities of data about individuals.

gregorylent May 6, 2013 2:04 PM

radio transmitter in those glasses? should be great for the cancer and tumor industry.

Peter Gowen May 6, 2013 2:07 PM

I hope Scott Adams’ vision is a little closer to our true future:

“Ironically, the more the government clamps down on individual privacy, the more freedom the residents will have. When the government can detect every sort of crime, it will be forced by public opinion and by resource constraints to legalize anything it can detect but can’t stop.

Porn has already moved into the mainstream. More states are making gay marriage legal. Weed is being legalized in various states…”


Not that I necessarily advocate for any of the latter (!), but once we know that a looooot of people engage in certain behavior, some of the fear and mistrust melts away.

Dave Walker May 6, 2013 3:06 PM

I’m hoping Google also make a production version of Glass which doesn’t have a camera in it, and which has no camera aperture hole in the case, to make it obvious to others that there’s no camera present. If nothing else, this might mean I could use Glass in security-sensitive environments which have “no cameras” policies.

Audio recording is another matter, though, as so much of the Glass UI appears to require an audio interface and speech recognition. It would be interesting to see details of how directional Glass’ mics are; if it’s getting good speech recognition results, filtering out any sound other than the wearer’s voice is something it should be pretty good at.

If people are concerned about other surveillance and sniffing measures embedded within Glass, the fact that it’s been rooted is something they would probably consider as a benefit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see third-party Glass firmware loads with various facilities nobbled.

tz May 6, 2013 3:22 PM

Assuming they don’t ban it, “who will watch the watchers”? We will.

copblock.org or policemisconduct.net or PINAC.

Think the Rodney King incident writ large. Very large.

Surveillance works both ways at times.

John Doe May 6, 2013 3:32 PM

Seems like the government is more worried about losing a strategic position of power.

For example, we have been brainwashed to think that economic progress comes from Washington D.C. because that’s where economic statistics come from. But there are no factories or farms in Washington. What if economic statistics came primarily from Google instead? That’s an altogether different version of reality.

If we can cut out the middle man in our understanding of our place in the world, then that diminishes the power of the middle man to dictate how we interpret reality.

Remember the embedded journalists in the Gulf War? Simply by having more cameras with the military, the story was colored in a subtle way to favor them.

With Glass, now every individual is an embedded journalist, telling the story from the individual’s point of view. Doesn’t bode well for statism.

jb May 6, 2013 4:01 PM

Peter Gowan,
Scott Adams is wrong. The end result will be inconsistent enforcement, like with speed limits. Everyone will commit illegal acts that will be detected and ignored by the government, until the government wants to ‘get’ someone, and will then arrest them for said illegal acts.

Public opinion won’t affect anything–the people who weren’t ‘gotten’ won’t care, or they’ll think the victims had it coming due to whatever the government wanted to get them on.

glazz May 6, 2013 4:24 PM

some guy in japan alrdy used his google glass prototype/preorder to walk around red light districts and brothels in thailand and singapore to film the bars and patrons then uploaded them eveywhere to promote his sex tourism biz for japanese salarymen

seaoctopus May 6, 2013 6:15 PM

Oddly David Brin wrote about this over 15 years ago and then updated that vision just last year in his latest novel.

One thing he suggested was having a senior citizen monitoring network so that seniors could feel safe walking around cities since the monitoring company could keep tabs around them in 360 degrees with live video feed of who could potentially rob them. Also for monitoring for Grandpa wandering off…

John Campbell May 6, 2013 6:47 PM

Has anyone considered this in context with David Brin’s “Earth”?

Google Glass seems straight out of that novel…

Frodo May 6, 2013 7:24 PM

@peter Gowan, jb,

JB is right. All you have to do is look up the history of the soviets. Gulag archipelago is a good reference. The
Leninists and Stalinists made everything illegal, so one could be pinned as a criminal for really anything (we’ve done that here, read 3 Felonies a day). Then, dissidents, troublemakers or really anyone who gets in the way can be arrested and thrown away for as long as you like. It has a chilling effect on society. That way also the accused was not being jailed for being a dissident, but for a “tax crime”. That is the essence of totalitarianism.

Dirk Praet May 6, 2013 7:36 PM

The main problem the honourable Mr. Chertoff probably has with this potential weapon of mass surveillance (WMS) is that it’s not a government, but a commercial project, and intended for the general public. Or that he’s not on Google’s payroll, for that matter. This man talking about threats to public privacy is about as credible as Osama Bin Laden praising the virtues of Catholicism.

Another interesting article on Google Glass privacy “hysteria” by Ron Miller can be found at http://www.internetevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=1047&doc_id=263042& . The author was chosen for the Explorer Team (Google Glass beta testers) and is obviously quite enthusiastic about the device.

I quote: Which brings us to the latest issue: that a hacker could control the device and see what you’re seeing. This obviously has the potential to be a much more serious issue, but the programmer who hacked Glass told Charles Arthur at the Guardian that this hole could be closed if Google simply allowed people to protect the device using a biometric approach such as using patterns in the iris, or voice, or by entering a PIN. I already feel much safer now…

@ tz

Surveillance works both ways at times.

Don’t count on it. I suspect it will just be a matter of time before the USG will require Google to build in a backdoor or remote kill switch for LEA’s to be able to deactivate Glass when “national security” calls for it. Then again, this could probably be mitigated by allowing the device to be rooted and outfitted with 3rd party firmwares as suggested by @Dave Walker.

If they don’t, perhaps a name change is in order from Google to SpyNet, Skynet’s creepy little brother. There’s even a great movie plot here: SpyNet, very aware of sinister forces plotting against them, decides to beef up the security of the Glass Project and hires HBGary to do so.

They are subsequently pwned beyond belief both by the PLA and some loosely knit anarchist organisation that is very much into lulz. Whereas the former pass on the stolen plans to some dodgy local manufacturer who starts producing cheap knock-offs that cause brain cancer, the latter succeed in discovering several built-in backdoors and succesfully manage to exploit them.

Failing to comply with the group’s mistaken belief and demands that its CEO reveals himself to be a highly evolved plant instead of a human, SpyNet falls victim to an all-out attack that sends millions of Glass devices into an infinite feedback loop crashing its servers and poisoning its information databases beyond recovery. Now utterly useless to their customers, government agencies and the general public, stocks plummet and what is left of the organisation is litigated out of existence by a class action suit brought on by Glass owners unable to turn off the porn movie they got displayed the moment their devices were taken over.

Michael Brady May 6, 2013 7:53 PM

“We need to be judicious in how to balance innovation with privacy.” – Michael “Nudie Pics” Chertoff

Other than whether or not he wants cheese on his Whopper why on earth would anyone care what Michael Cherthoff has to say, especially regarding reason, ethics, or sensible responses to issues of importance to real people?

PS I think more than a few Google Goggles are going to end up snapped in two and inserted into the wearer’s pocket protector.

Kazriko May 6, 2013 7:58 PM

Julien: One difference between this and a photographic memory is the ability to instantly share that video with anyone else.

jdgalt May 6, 2013 9:19 PM

@Julian: The (likely unavoidable) prospect of having one rule forced on all public spaces will be a good reason to move away from having so many public spaces. Privatizing (for example) large chunks of city streets will provide both businesses and consumers with more choices regarding the kind of policing they will be subjected to. (It will also help rid us of problems the present system can’t, such as teenage hooligans and bums.)

There are already malls that draw business because the cameras make us feel safer from robbery (by providing at least some help in catching the bad guy after it happens). On the other hand, adult businesses and their patrons will want to have no-surveillance (by third parties) zones around themselves, especially if discrimination against them remains legal.

Places that don’t allow such choices will lose business to those that do. This is real progress.

@Matt: You have it backwards. It can be expensive to drag a big business into court, but it at least occasionally happens. Government agencies, though, are immune. Anyone who advocates more regulation lacks the imagination to realize the new agency will soon be run by self-serving bad guys who will answer to no one.

@Dirk: I agree that government will demand the ability to defeat any such system, and companies like Google will cave in. But they won’t have the market cornered for very long. Cameras and mikes are cheap, and Moore’s law will soon kick in for them. Imagine lots of hacker types with cameras hidden in their glasses, earrings, watches, and hair bands, all with panic buttons that can trigger live uploads to PINAC or similar public web sites. It’s too early to say the police state is doomed, but I expect the hackers to do well.

Figureitout May 6, 2013 10:18 PM

Other than whether or not he wants cheese on his Whopper…
@Michael Brady
–Same thoughts. His analogy of Google Glass==Drone on your head; was terrible, people can’t fly moron, it’s a ground-level viewpoint. I find it very irritating that this guy and people like Google’s Schmidt are just now crying about drones. And they cry about losing privacy, christ you’re a little late to the party fellas…

Right now, people, we have a choice to reject this stupid technology. Because we have plenty as it stands right now, and we can’t even control it.

Stephan Engberg May 7, 2013 1:00 AM

Google glasses are weapons – nothing less. And much more dangerous than firearms as they mass-produce power over not only indiviudals but their surroundings.

Problem is that once again government ideologies and greed has forgotten the importance of freedom for society to progress.

There is freedom, security and free market economics in difference to humans observing without recording and this kind of systemic surveillance and informant networking linked to a backend data abuse and power accumulation engine.

alanm May 7, 2013 2:13 AM

I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Glass seems to me to be a bit of a straw man.

People are busy losing it over the privacy implications of some gimmick that 0.01% of the global population will ever wear.

In the mean time, Google is tapping your browser, email, documents, mobile phone/GPS, calendar, address book, friend graph, camera and dozens of other channels for more information than they’ll ever collect from Glass. This is happening right now, to almost everybody in the world.

What made Glass the straw-man that broke and camel’s back?

Jon May 7, 2013 4:38 AM

0.01 percent of the global population is about what, 600,000 people?

Six hundred thousand people? I think that’s enough to care about.


GregW May 7, 2013 5:13 AM

The distaste of ordinary citizens for people wearing Google Glass is not unlike the distaste for similar recording-device-wearing people (nicknamed somewhat appropriately “gargoyles”) in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

johnp271 May 7, 2013 7:11 AM

Gee, Chertoff advocated for full-body scanners “while on the payroll of a scanner company”. Is that some major moral and ethical faux pas? Brin advocates for the internet and cloud “while on the payroll of an internet/cloud company”, Obama advocates for big government “while on the payroll and the head of the government”, Balmer advocates for PCs and operating systems “while on the payroll of an OS company”. Who reading this and on the payroll of a company engaged in X does not advocate for X?

alanm May 7, 2013 7:40 AM


My point was that Google and others are already doing far more than they’ll ever do with Glass or similar technologies.

Dirk Praet May 7, 2013 7:52 AM

@ johnp271

Is that some major moral and ethical faux pas?

You’re missing the point. It’s about the double moral of advocating full body scanners on one hand, and on the other warning for the potential privacy issues related to Google Glass. That’s just like a KKK member turning up at fundraiser for disenfranchised black kids to create an impression of salonfähigkeit.

J.D. Bertron May 7, 2013 9:45 AM

It’ll be funny the day a Photographer wearing Google Glass will have his camera confiscated…

FP May 7, 2013 11:09 AM

Some of the very same people that believe that citizens have no right recording everything around them all the time have no problem with the government doing the same. Google glass or drones: necessary tools in government hands, but weapons if operated by ordinary people?

DavidTC May 7, 2013 7:04 PM

I have always found it completely baffling we have no problem with profit-making third parties from recording almost everything we do in public via surveillance cameras, but would have a problem with…profit-making third parties doing it when it’s mounted on our face? Wha?

I’m with David Brin. The problem isn’t people recording things, and if that actually were the problem it is unsolvable because we can’t uninvent video cameras. The problem is only some people recording things.

I would very much like a Federal law stating it is legal to record the video of anything you can see with perfect eyesight, and legal to record everything that someone with perfect hearing would hear. (I don’t know what that sensitivity is, but the exact numbers are not important.) Aka, if someone with the ideal perfect senses was in your place, and could observe that thing (Whether or not you can observe it.), you can record it, with a recorder on your person, period.

This really should be a basic right. There is literally no privacy objection possible there. If you’re doing something in front of someone else, you already know they know about it, and can tell people.

And what I would also like is a ruling by the courts that you cannot be compelled to turn over a recording of your own life, which, if that ruling happened, would eventually cause crime to plummet.

Think about. If everyone records everything they do, secure in the belief they can’t be compelled to turn it over even with a warrant…at that point, it is literally impossible for people to be victims of 90% of crimes out there.

Because the victims will have recordings, and no problem with turning them over. Likewise, a lot of the accused are going to have pretty damn good alibis they don’t mind turning over. (Yes, we need to make sure we don’t assume that just because someone doesn’t turn that video over doesn’t mean they’re guilty, but, uh, we already have that problem with alibis currently.)

Stephan Engberg May 7, 2013 7:17 PM

David Brin makes no sense – there is no reciprocity when you are talking companies or governments vs. citizens.

The fact that weapons exist does not make it acceptable to threaten anyone. Similar with cameras and similar digital control weapons.

Similar you cannot make markets work with the massive concentration of power in commercial infrastructure.

What we really need to do is to design identification out of digital context. When Identification is not acceptable, contextual integrity and markets can be reestablished

Fatrick Zenry May 7, 2013 7:41 PM


The inconsistent enforcement and its effects are already here.

On my way to work, the speed limit is 65 MPH. Absolutely everyone drives between 75 and 85 MPH. If you don’t, you’ll be run over.

So, the police pull over anyone they want, anytime they want, for any reason they want — and then charge them with speeding.

The net result is that the police are given power they were never intended to have. Police are often abusing their power without even realizing it — selecting speeders on hunches or suspicions, or maybe they even try to select speeders at random but end up selecting based on subconscious bias. The populace, in general, thinks they’re getting away with speeding most of the time, but what they’re really doing is giving up their right to travel without being accused of a crime.

Fatrick Zenry May 7, 2013 7:46 PM


Allow me to clarify the problem:

Chertoff advocated for government blasting of citizens with ionizing (read: cancer causing) radiation for daring to exercise their right to travel.

Coyne Tibbets May 9, 2013 1:34 AM

Chertoff would say this is not hypocrisy, because in his view it is a matter of authority: The government is entitled to perform surveillance in its role as protector; and the private sector is not. In his view, privacy is irrelevant to the discussion.

JohnP May 9, 2013 12:30 PM

I don’t mind the idea if being recorded when I’m in public by a private individual provided:
* the video is for private use
* the video is NOT uploaded to any 3rd party servers
* the video cannot be subpoenaed, but can be offered by the individual.

Recording in private locations is a completely different matter. I have a reasonable expectation of privacy when inside a private location – including stores, government buildings and when at work. I know the law doesn’t agree with my “expectations.”

People will say many things they don’t agree with personally to get paid. I used to sell BBQ – I lied that it was “the best I’d ever tasted” daily. Does that make me a hypocrite? Does that make any advertiser that uses “best”, “least”, “freshest” and other similar terms a liar too?

Geek Prophet May 9, 2013 10:25 PM


There is literally no privacy objection possible there. If you’re doing something in front of someone else, you already know they know about it, and can tell people.

On the contrary, there is a very great difference in privacy violation between memory and recordings. If there were no difference between memories and recordings, there would be no reason to record.

Are you actually telling me that there is no privacy violation difference between being able to tell people I had sex with a woman and being able to publish video of it on the Internet? No difference between being able to say, “I heard some person I don’t know say bad things about our tyrannical leader” and giving the secret police copies of a video of them doing so? That going to some private venue, say a BDSM club, and recording what happens is no worse violation than simply watching?

If recordings didn’t violate people’s privacy more than memories, there would be no reason to record crimes. The eyewitness’ ability to violate the criminal’s privacy would be just as good as the video.

Recordings change how privacy violation happens in many and important ways. People lose deniability. You can violate privacy in greater detail. You can violate privacy on a larger scale by publishing recordings on the Internet. It even becomes possible to violate the privacy of people you can’t identify by allowing crowdsourcing of identification.

There is both a quantitative and a qualitative difference in the privacy invasion possible by using recordings over memories. You may argue that you should be allowed to record anything you are able to see, but it is ridiculous to claim that these differences leave “literally no privacy objection possible”.

SOF May 11, 2013 11:51 AM

Crime scene? How much broken glass are we looking at? You prepare for anything and an asteroid strikes. Space station is leaky. Air traffic control is out of funding. Write bills and pay with debt. Quality pays for itself and security based on quality reduces crime. Since we can’t stop crime, how do we control it? The plastic is insecure. $45 million gone. At least the fools and the money got together to start with. Be wise and be well.

DavidTC May 12, 2013 10:05 AM

Geek Prophet: Nothing you said is actually a result of recording a video, it is the result of publishing a video.

I didn’t actually say anything about that, but I must point out that within a decade (i.e, before this actually happens), video evidence of people is going to be regarded with complete indifference, as it will be trivial to forge.

We are actually already at the point where that should be true, but such a thing still is slightly complicated. We’re really just waiting for the consumer version of the equivalent of Photoshop.

In a decade, if you want a video of some woman having sex with you, you could record it, sure. Or you just could just recording a video of you having sex with a similiarly-sized woman and digitally replace her face. Or just find one of the many videos out there of two people having sex and replace both your faces. Or perhaps just create the entire thing from scratch.(1)

And I must actually point out that video recording people, without their knowledge, generally already is legal, so I am confused as to what exactly you think is going to happen anyway. (It is, in fact, so legal that in a few well-published cases they had nothing to charge guys with who secretly installed video cameras in a shower. They had to make a specific law about that.)

What I was suggesting is to restrict video recording to ‘eyesight’ level and to an actual person (Aka, you can’t leave the camera somewhere else, or install it in a wall. Other cameras have to be obvious, perhaps with a flashing red light or something.), and make audio recording the same, instead of idiotically making audio recording completely illegal and video recording completely legal.

1) Now, at some point it becomes obvious ‘So how would we use that in crime prevention?’. Well, first of all, we sorta assume that victims are not attempting to frame innocent people by tampering with their own recording. But we could postulate some sort of signature to real-time recorded video, but it would be easy enough to not allow that signature to be verified externally. In fact, the easiest form of tamper proofing is just a video recorder that there is no way to alter videos, recording 24 hours a day. Track those back forwards and backwards far enough that you hit someone else’s video, and if those match up, it’s a pretty damn impressive forgery that would have required tampering with the actual camera to splice in pre-generated video. (At some point in time we might be at real time real-life recreated in CGI then smoothly transitioned back to real life, but not yet.)

But, of course, that only works as proof of non-alteration if you actually have the recorder on hand. Which means no one can distribute such videos and prove they have not been tampered with (Because the copy could easily be tampered with), but they can be easily used as evidence.

Figureitout May 12, 2013 11:38 AM

the video is NOT uploaded to any 3rd party servers
–Pretty unrealistic, ask the “Star Wars Kid” about having video uploaded on the internet w/o his permission; I think it almost made him commit suicide. Everyday, everyone is a potential youtube sensation, just waiting for the worst possible moment.
–I’d have to taste your BBQ, but yeah from when I was a tiny child these claims really irritated me. There’s different degrees of liars, but it’s not honest. Plus I prefer finding good hole-in-the-wall restaurants that don’t have annoying adds yelling at me.

Stephan Engberg May 13, 2013 3:02 AM

I disagree – the vialation is the recording.

There is limited problem in human observation as it is impossible to require humans from not seeing.

There is a problem in human obersvation on private property – both stalkers, corporates and state.

And there is an enourmous and destabilising problem in digital recording outside individual control.

The claim that the state is a “protector” is ignorant of history. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the failure of both market and democracy as the concetration of power in both state and commercial infrastructure leads to systemic control of all society processes and individual citizens.

Linking systemic surveillance with systemic data abuse (NSA has access to the same and data cannot be protected from crimnals) is just moving almost straight to worst-case

Dis-empowering technologeis such as Google Glasses are more lethal than atom bombs, they are the eqvivalent of a terminal and highly contagious airborne virus deliberately spread in the most densly popoluated areas.

It should rightly be characterized as an assault on fundamentla rights destabilizing society – and could legally be labbeled “terorism”

This does not change the fact that getting the digital design on e.g. private fotos and videos as well as e.g. visual augmentation for e.g. blind people vs. ensuring against secondary abuse is not a simple question.

What is clear is that the assault occur on time of data collection – not on the later use

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