by Wanjiku Karanja

Wearable technology is rapidly making its way from the realms of science fiction to real life. From “smart watches” and “smart glasses” to smart fabrics and interactive textiles, innovations relating to technology worn close to the body, on the body or even in the body are developing at an unprecedented rate.

Wearable computing is inextricably linked with the ubiquitous computing, with which it shares the aim of seamlessly interweaving computing in every aspect of an individual’s daily life. The development of Google Glass and other similar wearable “smart glasses” is a step closer towards the achievement of this aim.

Google Glass runs on the Android operating system and apps, called Glassware, built by 3rd party developers. It also uses existing Google applications such as Google Maps, Google Now, Google + and Gmail. Attached to it is a: miniature display, which sits atop where a spectacles’ lens would normally be, camera, microphone, bone-conduction transducer i.e. a subtle speaker beside the ear, GPS, light sensor, proximity sensor, Bluetooth connectivity, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. Its various functions are activated via voice commands. Google glass is essentially an “omnipresent” device as it is designed for seamless integration in everyday use. It is wearable and is, as such, much more readily available for use than the standard smartphone. Google’s access to data of millions of people and institutions facilitates the ubiquity of this technology as it incorporates data integrated by users through other Google services such as: email, contacts, photos, calendars, documents, social network activity, search activity, location activity etc. The convergence of these two elements makes Glass uniquely capable of facilitating invasions of privacy.

Google initially sold the “Explorer Edition” prototype of the Glass to qualified “Glass Explorers” in the United States in April 2013 at $1,500, for a limited period, before releasing it to the public, for the same price, in May 2014. It however failed to gain commercial success, not because of the technology, but rather due to preemptive marketing of the prototype coupled with its prohibitive price. Astro Teller; head of Google X at the time of its release, admitted Google’s mistake by stating that:

“The bad decision was that we allowed and sometimes even encouraged too much attention on the program,.. . The device was being judged and evaluated in a very different context than we intended – Glass was being held to standards that launched consumer products are held to, but the Explorer edition of Glass was really just an early prototype.”

Google stopped the sale of this version and moved the project out of the Google X research lab into a standalone unit in January 2015, though development of future versions of the Glass is ongoing. Other “smart-glasses” have been developed such as “Cool Glass One” launched in Shanghai by Beijing Alto Tech which is controlled using voice recognition and can record 1080p HD videos, text, make calls and surf the internet by connecting to an android device. This product is due for release in Summer 2015 at a price range of $335 – $507. Swedish tech startup Tobii Technology has also developed “Tobii Glasses” which, unlike Google Glass, is based on eye-tracking technology i.e. algorithms that track eye-patterns with a camera and as such pinpoint the direction of a subject’s gaze and over time map their behavior patterns.

What then makes the privacy concerns raised by Google Glass and other similar technology unique from those raised by other recording devices in wide use such as CCTV cameras? The answer lies in their ability to not only surreptitiously observe and record but to act and react to the data that they receive. With a single thread of information, they weave an entire tapestry all without the subject’s knowledge or consent.

Article 31 of the Constitution of Kenya provides:-

“Every person has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have—
(a) their person, home or property searched;
(b) their possessions seized;
(c) information relating to their family or private affairs unnecessarily required or revealed; or
(d) the privacy of their communications infringed.”

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights further provides that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy. family, home or correspondence … Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” It therefore stands that the right to privacy is a fundamental human right.

Central to privacy law is the concept of “expectation of privacy”. This is a legal test that is crucial in determining the places and situations in which a person has a legal right to privacy. An element of this concept is the “reasonable expectation to privacy” i.e. the legitimate expectation to privacy recognized by society, that each individual is entitled to. Examples places where this expectation exists include; private residences, public restrooms, phone booths etc. As wearable computers become ubiquitous, “reasonable expectations of privacy” will change. The law will have to evolve to accommodate a new reality where conversations can be surreptitiously intercepted through speech-text technology and where a passing glance becomes a recording for posterity.

Managing the clash between privacy and surveillance in an era of rapid social change brought about by technological developments will be challenging. The law, in history, has been a tool for social change. There will have to be an inevitable paradigm shift in the way the law perceives privacy so as to adapt to the new landscape and to prevent an Orwellian disregard of the individual’s fundamental right to privacy.