Google Glass and other wearables: the legal view

By John McKinlay
08 May 2014 View Comments

Several years ago headlines were made when a scientist at the University of Reading, who had implanted an RFID chip in his wrist, "infected" himself with a computer virus. It was an early example of the closer and closer integration of technology and humans, which has given birth to a whole new sector - that of wearable and embedded computers.

This technology area has recently gathered a great deal of attention. Industry experts have predicted that by 2020, consumer data collected from wearable devices will drive five per cent of sales from the Global 1000 and that the market for wearable technology will be worth £15bn. March saw the UK's first Wearable Technology Show, with many "ready for market" devices - from socks that monitor and obtain biometric data to assist with fitness and weight loss - to medical devices that remind a patient when to take their medicine.

Further reading

The most high-profile example of wearable technology is, of course, Google Glass. This device, which is sure to be just the first of a whole range of similar products, has generated excitement and controversy in equal measure.

The benefits of using Google Glass are many - from the simple day-to-day convenience of hands-free access to information, to more fundamentally life-changing applications, such as allowing visually impaired people to be guided by what a remote viewer can "see". The race is now on as developers look to find "killer" applications and designers look to make the technology more fashionable and less obtrusive.

However, the legal implications of the impending rollout of this technology are equally numerous.

At the moment, the key issues relate to privacy, safety and security. Google has published a guide for Google Glass users entitled "How not to be a Glasshole" with guidelines on the use of Google in public. While the Glasses are designed so that they light up when in use, Glass Explorers have still been asked to remove the glasses in public places, such as restaurants, for fear that individuals have not consented to be filmed. The amount of personal information being captured is not just a concern to the unwary passer-by but to the Glass users themselves. The data stored on the Glasses could make users vulnerable to hackers who would be able to obtain information such as a user's address, PIN numbers or other confidential information.

As Google Glass is rolled out, employers will need to update their own policies to address use of  Glasses in the workplace. Such policies will need to be carefully balanced to ensure that those users who also use the Glasses as prescription glasses are not discriminated against while protecting the rights of other employees not to be filmed without permission.

While legislation often deals retrospectively with advances in technology, the Department of Transport (DoT) stated that it was aware of the impending rollout and was in discussions with the police to ensure that individuals do not use Google Glass while driving. Google has already spoken with the DoT about ways in which Google could adapt the Glasses to make them compliant with law.

In other areas, the interaction of devices, medicine and health could have significant legal issues. Some recent advances in medical devices include the use of electronic tattoos - electronic circuits that stick directly to the skin like temporary tattoos and monitor the temperature, hydration and strain of the skin - and an insertable cardiac monitor, a small implantable device that continuously monitors and records heard rhythms.

The cross-overs between technology and medicine has raised regulatory concerns of ensuring appropriate consumer protection and the existing medical devices directives are currently undergoing substantial recasting, with two new regulations expected to come into effect by 2015. There is already uncertainty as to how software in medical devices will be regulated and what the correct approach is for dealing with invasive non-medical devices; we will watch with interest how the regulations propose to deal with these areas.

Overall, the benefits of embedding and wearing technology are so numerous that their rise is unstoppable but it is an area with many legal challenges, and it seems clear that further official guidelines and legislation will be necessary to ensure that the implications of their use are controlled and safe for everyone.

John McKinlay is a partner at law firm DLA Piper

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