Last Week in Tech Policy #59: Smart Glasses for Law Enforcement

In 2015, ABI Research estimated that approximately 90% of smart glasses would be sold to police, military, security, warehouse, and bar code scanning operations. Smart glasses, such as Google Glass, have to potential to improve the safety of police officers and bring wanted individuals to justice, but also present major issues in the realms of privacy and government surveillance.

The benefits of smart glasses for law enforcement are substantial: smart glasses can be used to record interactions with the public, use facial recognition to identify individuals, scan vehicle license plates, live stream video to a command post, and provide biometric information on police officers and wounded or unconscious subjects.

Smart glasses are already in use with various police departments across the globe:

Perhaps the most controversial issues with police use of smart glasses are the potential constitutional issues pertaining to privacy, particularly the use of smart glasses to record police interactions with the public and the potential for advanced facial recognition functionalities.

While body cameras have been widely applauded for bringing increased transparency to police interactions with the public, they have also introduced new privacy issues. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have recommended stringent privacy policies for police use of body cameras, such as limiting their use to uniformed officers, notifying individuals when they are being recorded, and retaining body camera data for the minimum amount of time necessary.

The use of smart glasses as body cameras presents all of the same issues as above, but provides a benefit over traditional body cameras: glasses-mounted cameras allow viewers to see a recording of an incident from a police officer’s point of view. This is a strong improvement over traditional chest-mounted cameras, which can easily be obstructed and suffer from limited viewing angles.

Perhaps more daunting than the issues surrounding recording is the potential use of smart glasses for facial recognition purposes. This functionality is already present with some smart glasses designs, such as the R-7 Smartglasses, which use Imagus Advanced Biometric Face Recognition Technology to identify an individual and provide officers with rapid access to information such as name, address, contact information, criminals history, and active warrants.

The smart glasses used by Brazilian police during the 2014 and 2016 Olympics are able to scan up to 400 faces per second, and can identify a specific individual in a crowd of people from up to 50 yards away. This presents a potential constitutional issue regarding the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, as police could theoretically use this technology to identify every member of even a very large political protest. This information could be recorded in a database and potentially used by government authorities for nefarious purposes.

As the price of smart glasses decreases and the technology within them improves, we will most likely see more and more police departments adopting smart glasses. Features of smart glasses such as recording are a double-edged sword, bringing improved transparency, but raising potential privacy issues. What other issues might police use of smart glasses bring? Do the potential benefits of this technology outweigh the constitutional issues that its use will raise? Can concerns about privacy violations and misuse of smart glasses be assuaged by passage of  legislation and adoption of strict privacy and usage policies by police departments?