Following in the footsteps of Snap’s Spectacles and Amazon’s Echo Frames, Facebook’s newly announced Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses are the latest effort to transition digital communications from handheld devices to wearable displays.
Some people may find these new devices “creepy” at first, because they constantly gather and process information about both users and bystanders. If history is any indication, reactionary calls for legal restraints will soon follow — but demands for new regulations targeted at immersive technologies are premature. Instead, technology-neutral federal privacy legislation can address most of the concerns about these wearable devices.
The initial benefits from smart glasses will likely be incremental, such as giving people access to hands-free voice assistants and capturing first-person photos and videos. But as smart glasses eventually integrate more augmented reality capabilities, they will combine virtual elements with physical space to create more information-rich experiences for wearers and reduce the need for handheld screens in daily life. These changes could transform the way people communicate, work and learn by giving individuals access to visual instructions, interactive 3D models and other immersive content.
Despite these benefits, devices that can capture others’ words and actions have long prompted public mistrust and even widespread panic about a loss of privacy. For example, when the first handheld cameras appeared at the end of the 19th century, it touched off public panic about “sleuthhound reporters” and “Kodak fiends” who could now spy on you with the click of a button. But from those handheld cameras to smartphones, the most hyperbolic concerns generally have proved to be unfounded. As social norms and public understanding catch up to technological progress, industry standards emerge, and law and policy fill in the remaining gaps.
With smart glasses becoming increasingly common, this panic cycle is once again repeating itself. “Glassholes” took the place of Kodak fiends, and new models of smart glasses are consistently met with privacy pushback despite growing interest in wearable devices.
But as with recording devices of the past, it would be a mistake to respond to these concerns by preemptively regulating them. Indeed, when you break down the technology in smart glasses and their anticipated AR successors and look at their component parts, you find that few of their features or functions are novel. Other devices such as smartphones, security systems, smart home devices and body cameras already collect much of the information that consumer AR devices will.
Instead of panicking, the public can rest easy knowing there are rules already in place to regulate many of these functions and prevent malicious misuse. For example, consent laws make it illegal to record private conversations without participants’ knowledge, and stalking, harassment and video voyeurism laws prohibit certain forms of harmful or sensitive recording. Further, anti-discrimination laws prevent using potentially sensitive information that these devices might reveal to deny housing, critical services or employment opportunities.
Moreover, wearables often incorporate privacy-protecting features not found on related technologies. For example, unlike cellphone cameras, both Ray-Ban Stories and Spectacles feature a prominent LED light to alert others that the device is recording. And future models could incorporate additional privacy features such as using geofencing to limit recording or data collection in certain spaces.
Rather than trying to create new rules for this next wave of wearable technologies, policymakers should fill in gaps in existing privacy laws. For example, Congress should pass legislation to criminalize distribution of nonconsensual pornography and direct the Department of Justice to provide law enforcement agencies guidance on proper use of recording devices.
And to avoid a thicket of state laws with conflicting rules, Congress should pass a comprehensive privacy law that establishes basic consumer data rights, streamlines regulation, pre-empts state laws and minimizes the impact on innovation.
Wearables like smart glasses will continue to advance and offer new benefits to consumers. Policymakers should not stand in the way of these developments. Instead, they should ensure the necessary safeguards are in place for current and future iterations of immersive technologies.
Ellysse Dick is a policy analyst in tech and cyber policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, where her research focuses on AR/VR innovation and policy including privacy, safety and accountability.
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