Facebook smart glasses: a privacy nightmare waiting to come true

Before proclaiming that Facebook's smart glasses just ushered in the next generation of wearable tech, let’s take a step back and consider the spine-chilling privacy issues they raise.

Several weeks ago, Facebook introduced a new line of smart glasses called Ray-Ban Stories, which can take photos, shoot 30-second videos, and post them on the owner’s Facebook feed. Priced at $299 and powered by Facebook’s virtual assistant, the web-connected shades can also take phone calls and play music or podcasts.

To share photos and videos captured on Ray-Ban Stories to other platforms, users will need to pair their smart glasses with the Facebook View app. The smart glasses also lack any AR functionality, which means that tech enthusiasts will have to wait for seamless augmented reality glasses a while longer.

According to the report by ImmersivEdge Advisors, revenue from selling smart glasses will grow to $4.5 billion by 2025 and $30.1 billion by 2030, marking Facebook’s entry into the emerging market as supposedly an extremely positive proposition. With previous offerings by Google and Snap failing to garner any kind of mass-market appeal, partnering with eyewear giant Luxottica to create smart glasses that don’t look like smart glasses (i.e, actually look good) might certainly seem like the right move.

However, before proclaiming that the next generation of wearable tech is finally here, let’s consider the social media giant’s terrible reputation on privacy and its implications for Ray-Ban Stories.

A reputation in tatters

Conceptually, smart glasses come with their own baggage of issues. After all, the ability to continuously capture and share data through a video camera that’s sitting on your face all day is a privacy nightmare waiting to happen.

But with Facebook, there are even more privacy pitfalls to consider. The company has already suffered multiple data breaches throughout its history. The relatively recent leak of more than 500 million Facebook users’ data is just one example. Meanwhile, the recent investigation by Wall Street Journal had revealed deep-seated issues within the company not only privacy-wise, but also in terms of harmful content dissemination.

When it comes to Facebook smart glasses, however, the company attempted to assuage privacy fears by promising that “from the start, we designed Ray-Ban Stories with privacy in mind,” limiting video capture to 30 seconds, and putting in a LED light indicator that supposedly lets other people know that they’re being filmed.

That being said, WSJ’s Joanna Stern found that the LED indicator can be easily covered up with a piece of black tape, allowing her to record videos of unsuspecting bystanders without them knowing. At the same time, Facebook’s supposed ‘privacy by design’ promise sounds hollow in the face of the social media giant’s terrible handling of user data.

Indeed, Facebook’s ‘privacy measures’ apparently failed to appease privacy watchdogs as data protection authorities in Italy, Ireland, and Australia launched their own probes to determine whether Facebook’s smart glasses could be used to spy on people.

The ‘no opt-in’ problem

According to Jeff Martin, VP of Product at Finite State, there is a fundamental difference between wearable technology like smartwatches and smart glasses because, in the case of the former, the choice of wearing the device and accepting all the accompanying privacy and security risks falls on the owner. When it comes to the latter, however, things get more complicated.

“Glasses with outward-facing cameras introduce privacy and security concerns for individuals who did not opt-in. In general, our privacy regulations are trending toward requiring active and informed opt-ins,” explains Martin.

“Our security regulations will and should follow that trend. Smart glasses such as these by their very nature go against that trend and present security and privacy risks for individuals and corporations without informing them of the risks or gaining active consent.”

-Jeff Martin, VP of Product at Finite State

This divide, Martin believes, could eventually lead to abuse that will be followed by bans of smart glasses in some locations. According to him, before smart glasses become truly popular, their makers will need to ensure that “the values they provide, such as Augmented Reality, do not impinge on the rights of others to be private and secure.”

“These smart glasses are yet another device controlled and authenticated through Facebook, and provide another security and privacy risk category if and when a Facebook account is breached,” Martin says.

“Whether that breach is from an actual hack of the software, or simply not changing that Facebook password you shared after a break-up, the glasses' microphone and camera present a tempting target for anyone looking to see or hear what is going on around the wearer.”

The creep factor

Smart glasses, just like any wearable IoT device, are potentially prone to be hacked by threat actors or abused by stalkers.

Professor Michael Huth, chief research officer of Xayn and head of the computing department at Imperial College London, says that Facebook smart glasses can become an effective cyberstalking tool.

“Glasses, especially sunglasses, are lost or stolen more easily than smartphones. Thieves may target celebrities, politicians, or corporate managers in a concerted attempt on their reputation or privacy. Lost glasses in a VIP lounge might give a journalist a sensational story,” Huth told CyberNews.

According to Huth, Ray-Ban Stories’ sleek design, which makes them look like ordinary glasses, is also an “open invitation” for stalkers to make “clandestine recordings” in public spaces like beaches. “For instance, up-skirting is banned in several countries, but a perpetrator now has a great tool to keep making such reprehensible photos with minimal risk of detection,” he explains.

“Stalkers, such as vengeful ex-boyfriends, have been known to hack into victims’ phones to get access to their location and so forth. The Facebook glass app would allow such criminals to get even richer and often very intimate information about the personal lives of their targets.”

-Professor Michael Huth

Huth believes that when it comes to privacy, the wide proliferation of wearables that can record audio and video is a questionable development in general. “There are numerous contexts in which we expect to blend into the crowd and enjoy reasonable anonymity, such as picking up over-the-counter medication in the pharmacy aisle of a grocery store. With products such as Facebook glasses, these days may largely be over,” he concludes.

With smart glasses likely going mainstream as soon as manufacturers introduce AR functionality, will we be forced to rethink (or even retire) privacy as a concept? Unless stricter regulations come into effect, the emergence of devices like Ray-Ban Stories seems to point towards further erosion of privacy in the near future.

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