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Evan Schuman: Fear of Glass

Evan Schuman | Jan. 27, 2014
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.


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