Ride the Lightning

Cybersecurity and Future of Law Practice Blog
by Sharon D. Nelson Esq., President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

Facebook Enters a Privacy Minefield as its Smart Glasses Debut

September 15, 2021

On September 9, CNET reported that Facebook’s smart glasses, under the Ray-Ban brand, have gone on sale online and at some stores in the US, UK, Canada, Italy, Ireland and Australia. Called Ray-Ban Stories, the smart glasses take photos and 30-second videos with the press of a button. They also play music and podcasts and make calls. The glasses include a virtual assistant so you can snap photos and videos hands-free by uttering the phrase “Hey Facebook.”

To be sure they are pricey – $299 and up. They are also a step toward augmented reality. Zuckerberg has gushed about a future in which augmented reality (AR) glasses will let people play games on their couch next to holograms of their friends or share an experience on social media without using their phones. Though Facebook’s smart glasses don’t include AR effects, they move the company closer to that goal.

“Ray-Ban Stories are an important step towards the future when phones are no longer a central part of our lives and you won’t have to choose between interacting with a device, or interacting with the world around you,” Zuckerberg said.

The glasses have limitations. They need to be recharged every six hours with a charging case and don’t let you browse Facebook, shop or play games.

“What we want to do with Ray-Ban Stories is to listen to our customers in order to understand where to go, but also to make sure that as we’re building our roadmap, we are being responsible,” Hind Hobeika, a product manager at Facebook Reality Labs, said in a video chat.

Advisors forecast that annual sales of smart glasses will reach more than 22 million units by 2030. For some perspective, global smartphone sales totaled 1.3 billion in 2020, according to Gartner.

Smart glasses threaten privacy, which Facebook doesn’t have a strong reputation for respecting. Privacy advocates still worry the technology can be used for surveillance. You may recall that Google Glass faced backlash in 2013 from people who were upset at how tough it was to tell if the device was recording video.

The glasses don’t include facial recognition technology. People who use Ray-Ban Stories will also need a separate Facebook View app to share photos and videos captured on the device to other platforms. Hobeika said Facebook deliberately left out automatic sharing because the company wants to give users control over those decisions.

Facebook won’t use media captured on the smart glasses or in the View app for personalized advertising, she said. If users choose to share photos and videos from the smart glasses on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or other apps, the terms of services for those pieces of software will apply. Facebook, Hobeika said, doesn’t use audio data for ads. Users will also be able to choose if they want to share additional data with Facebook, such as the number of videos taken and their length, to help improve the product.

It will probably take a while for people to become comfortable with glasses recording photos and videos. You may recall that early adopters of Google Glass were derisively called “Glassholes.”

To help generate acceptance and allay privacy concerns, Ray-Ban Stories include a white LED light visible from 25 feet away so the wearer and people around them know when photos and videos are being captured. Some users might also be wary about sharing even more photos and videos with Facebook, a company that has suffered numerous privacy scandals.

Facebook includes tips in the View app and on a website so people who use the smart glasses know that recording in bathrooms or while driving are big no-nos. “Don’t use your smart glasses to engage in harmful activities like harassment, infringing on privacy rights, or capturing sensitive information like pin codes,” one of the tips states.

Facebook said it consulted with groups including the Future of Privacy Forum, National Network to End Domestic Violence and the LGBT Technology Partnership as it was working on the smart glasses.

Erica Olsen, director of Safety Net at NNEDV, said the group along with Facebook had concerns the glasses could be used to capture images or videos of people without their consent. An abuser could share that content in a way intended to cause harm.

Even so, some privacy experts say Facebook’s smart glasses could be misused in ways the company can’t yet imagine.

“Inevitably, these glasses will be used by consumers in ways not intended by the manufacturer,” said Jeremy Greenberg, policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum. “It will really be up to the developers to respond to those alternative uses in real time.”

Analysts say makers of smart glasses face a more fundamental challenge: The technology isn’t ready – and they are darn expensive.

Ray-Ban Stories can function as regular glasses or sunglasses, but the price rises if you add prescription or polarized lenses.

“For a company as wealthy as Facebook, there isn’t much downside,” said Lisa Ask, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.  “It’s still kind of a Wild West right now. Nobody’s had a breakthrough product.”

If it is the Wild West. I have no doubt that privacy advocates will be looking for a marshal to take on privacy abuses.

Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., President, Sensei Enterprises, Inc.
3975 University Drive, Suite 225, Fairfax, VA 22030
Email: Phone: 703-359-0700
Digital Forensics/Cybersecurity/Information Technology