Privacy watchdog concerned about ‘covert’ aspect of Facebook glasses

Australian Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk says she is “making enquiries with Facebook” about its new smart glasses, concerned about the potential for them to be used covertly.

The Commissioner also used the opportunity to comment on the glasses to reiterate her call for the country’s federal Privacy Act to be strengthened.

Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk and Facebook’s Ray-Ban smart glasses.

On Friday, Facebook and Ray-Ban unveiled a new line of $A449 smart glasses that enable wearers to capture photos and video and listen to music or take phone calls. Called Ray-Ban Stories, the glasses have two 5 megapixel cameras and three microphones, enabling up to 30 full-length 30-second videos or over 500 photos to be stored on them.

“I am concerned about products that have the potential to covertly collect personal and sensitive information about Australians without their awareness or consent,” Commissioner Falk said.

“While we have become accustomed to people using smart phones to take images in public places, photographing or filming people through a camera located in sunglasses can more easily occur without being obvious. It’s not clear what steps Facebook has taken to mitigate the impact on Australian’s privacy.”

Commissioner Falk went on to say that she was making enquiries with Facebook, including to determine whether it had conducted a privacy impact assessment.

“We are also consulting with other international data privacy regulators,” she said.

“When developing new products and technologies, entities need to take account of their privacy obligations as well as community expectations around privacy.

“While new technologies can be used to enhance our lives, they can also be used in ways that cause harm.”

The Commissioner, whose comments were first reported by News Corp, also noted her recent recommendations to reforming the Privacy Act as part of a review.

“My office has recommended that the Privacy Act be strengthened to create increased accountability obligations for organisations, introduce requirements that all personal information is collected, used and disclosed fairly and reasonably, and create no-go zones to limit or prohibit activities that do not meet the expectations of the community,” Commissioner Falk said.

Her office has also recommended that there be a new “cause of action” so that individuals can take actions in court for serious invasions of privacy by entities or individuals.

The discussion paper to reform the Privacy Act has still not been released. This is despite an inquiry being announced more than 21 months ago and the issues paper being unveiled more than nine months ago, meaning it’s unlikely that any legislative reforms will be unveiled and introduced to Parliament before the upcoming federal election, expected in early 2022.

Writing in The Conversation, two Australian academics provided their view on what they believed Facebook was hoping to achieve with its new glasses.

“We believe … the ultimate aim is to gradually normalise wearable surveillance technology many people currently have deep and understandable reservations about,” said Ben Egliston, a Queensland University of Technology postdoctoral research fellow, and Marcus Carter, a University of Sydney senior lecturer in digital cultures.

Asked at launch about what Facebook was doing to address any potential privacy concerns, Facebook reality labs product manager Ankit Brahmbhatt pointed to hardware features like the front-facing LED light that can be seen up to 25 metres away, the back-facing light the wearer can see, the sound the glasses make when capturing content, its physical off switch, and to user education in the onboarding process.

To allay privacy concerns, the glasses also contain a bright white front and back-facing LED light, which turns on when a photo or video is being taken. Data on the glasses is also encrypted, meaning if you lose them or they’re stolen, it will be difficult for photos and videos to be easily recovered.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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