FTC chief keeping eye on Google Glass

ASPEN, Colo. — The head of the Federal Trade Commission is keeping a close watch on Google Glass and other wearable computing devices for potential privacy violations.

"With all of these emerging technologies, it's important for companies themselves to be thinking hard about what the privacy and security ramifications are, and of course at the agency we're thinking hard about these issues," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in an interview with The Hill during the Technology Policy Institute's annual conference.

She declined to discuss any specific privacy concerns with Google Glass, but she said the product and other wearable computers "obviously do raise issues" that companies need to address before they become available to consumers.

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Ramirez said the agency is likely to consider Google Glass as part of its review of potential privacy problems as more everyday devices are connected to the Internet. The FTC is scheduled to hold a workshop on the trend, dubbed the "Internet of things," in November.

The FTC, which regulates unfair and deceptive business practices, has cracked down on Google several times in recent years over privacy violations. Google paid $22.5 million to settle FTC charges last year for circumventing privacy settings on Apple's Safari browser to track users. The company also settled charges in 2011 for forcing users to join its now defunct social network, Google Buzz.

Google Glass, which is still under development, is a pair of computerized glasses that uses a voice interface to allow the wearer to access the Internet, look up directions, take pictures, record videos and send messages.

The device is currently only available to a select group of "explorers" for testing.

Samsung, Apple and other companies are reportedly working on smartphone watches, and many analysts expect wearable devices to be a major future market for computing.

Eight members of Congress, led by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), sent a letter to Google in May, outlining their concerns that Google Glass could violate the privacy of users and the people around them.

They expressed particular concern that, coupled with facial recognition technology, Glass could allow users to identify people on the street and look up personal information about them. The device could also allow people to surreptitiously record videos, the lawmakers worried.

In a response to the members of Congress, Susan Molinari, the head of Google's Washington office, said Glass does not have any facial recognition capability, and the company would not be approving any third-party facial recognition apps "at this time."

Whenever users take pictures or record videos, they active the Glass display, which people around them can notice, Molinari said. App developers are barred from disabling or turning off the display.  

"We aim to provide the world's strongest security and privacy policies, as well as easy-to-use tools," Molinari wrote. "As we do for all our products, we are carefully reviewing the design of Glass for privacy considerations as part of Google's comprehensive privacy program. This includes designing Glass with privacy in mind and ensuring Google has obtained appropriate consent from Glass users."