Ray-Ban Stories could've saved your life if Facebook hadn't ruined it

Facebook Looming
Facebook Looming (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses were announced in September and were immediately met with concern. Despite being a pretty fantastic product for the price, the overwhelmingly negative response from Android Central readers reveals one major thing: People don't trust Facebook.

There are many reasons why compacted by an even longer history of privacy concerns at Facebook that include data leaks and scandals to straight-up stealing ideas. Facebook has a lot of work ahead to rebuild any semblance of trust in its platform.

Benjamin Franklin's famous quote, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety," is often taken wildly out of context. But, regardless of proper context, it serves a purpose. Allowing a company that has broken all sense of privacy to enter into your private life seems foolish, but those who arbitrarily critique a product without looking into the actual product and its merits are equally foolish.

Ray-Ban Stories, and the many types of smart glasses like it, present both a risk and a reward to those willing to wear them. They're a much different product from the best smart watches out there and should be treated as such.

Much like when Google Glass launched nearly a decade ago, people can still be "glassholes" when they improperly use any tech given to them. When used properly, however, smart glasses like Ray-Ban Stories can be a huge boon to personal safety and, given their design, can also maintain privacy in palpable ways.

A consideration of safety

Ray Ban Stories Taking Picture Side

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

While it's easy enough for many people to spend a lot of time thinking about the privacy, safety, or security implications of smart-connected glasses, Kavya Pearlman, founder and information security researcher at XRSI, is in the business of doing just that. XRSI, also known as the XR Safety Initiative, is a not-for-profit organization designed to "help build safe and inclusive experiences so that XR stakeholders are able to make informed decisions."

People like Pearlman can help guide Facebook along the right path by assisting them in adhering to the list of standards created specifically with XR in mind. If you've not heard of the term XR before, it simply refers to anything that falls within the AR, VR, or related fields, including connected smart glasses like Ray-Ban Stories.

Pearlman previously worked at Facebook and said she's had her own experiences over the years (both good and bad) relating to personal safety and privacy. But what piqued my interest was a particular post she shared on Twitter that was rather eye-opening.

We spend so much time talking about the privacy of smart glasses and forget the other half of the conversation: personal safety.

What if, instead of focusing on privacy alone, we also focused on the security merits that smart glasses can bring? People spend so much time thinking of the first part of the conversation that they often never make it to the second half. So let's dwell on the second part first.

As it turns out, the tweet in question was personal to Pearlman. She explained that she was mugged in Italy not long after sharing that tweet in September. In this case, her phone was stolen from her purse. So Pearlman went to the police, as most individuals might do, but according to her, the police refused to do anything because she didn't have the phone's IMEI number. While that's fine under some circumstances, proof of ownership and the phone's real-time location were shown to the police using the phone's tracking software, yet the police still refused to do anything.

Worse yet, Pearlman said that the officers were not only unhelpful, but they were also confrontational and unfit to deal with the situation. When she went back to the station the next day and spoke with the police chief, she said the officer feigned ignorance and acted as if he never said anything of the sort. This is the kind of situation where smart glasses would truly help, as they could be used to hold authorities accountable when they shirk their responsibilities.

"[A] 30-second video could mean life or death, or even justice for a person who has just been undermined," Pearlman said.

It's an essential distinction since she was undermined by authorities in her particular situation. Admittedly, a 30-second video isn't much. But it only takes a single tap on a pair of Ray-Ban Stories to begin a short video and could very well be enough to identify someone or, again, hold someone responsible for what they've said or done.

"From heads down to heads up, [it] automatically creates a sense of awareness of your surroundings," she said.

Pearlman added that it paints a very vivid picture of how different our world would look right now if heads were looking at their surroundings instead of down at their phones.

Google has built some safety features into Android to help keep people from doing this so much, but AR glasses could help keep your eyes on the sidewalk and around you at all times because they keep your head up instead of down. That, alone, could prevent someone from being targeted by a pickpocket or a mugger.

"[A] 30-second video could mean life or death, or even justice for a person who has just been undermined."— Kavya Pearlman, founder and information security researcher at XRSI

But let's put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. Adding yet another connected device to our life, designed to share (and collect) data, means opening another can of worms that you may not have considered initially. When posting on social media, especially if you're a prominent individual or are meeting with other prominent folks, you could unknowingly be helping a nefarious character plan something dastardly.

Checking in to a location automatically tells someone that you're not at home or, worse yet, helps to formulate a plan because it shows someone that you're in a very specific location at a particular time. That may sound mildly paranoid, but similar situations pan out all the time. For example, thieves stalk obituaries to pray on widows or widowers to take advantage of their grief. So why, then, would it be a stretch to imagine someone stalking you on social media?

Is Facebook getting in the way of success?

Initial reactions to Ray-Ban Stories made one thing clear: People, in large majorities, do not want Facebook on their face. People were worried about Facebook spying on them at all times while wearing the glasses, tapping into the camera feed, or otherwise collecting tons of data, as the company is well known to do. All reasonable concerns if this were a different product. But it's not.

If you took Facebook out of the equation, would Ray-Ban Stories, as a product, be something that people actually want? Yes. To word it differently, if you took Facebook out of the equation, Ray-Ban Stories would be a product more people would want.

If you took Facebook out of the equation, Ray-Ban Stories would be a product more people actually want.

Ray-Ban and Facebook clearly played it smart, considering how these glasses are worn and used and how they operate.

Products like Google Glass make it obvious. Even Snap Spectacles are a bit more transparent with its design, as they're obviously not your typical pair of glasses. On the other hand, Ray-Ban Stories look identical to a typical pair of Ray-Ban glasses at first glance and, when someone is wearing them, it likely takes a bit of close inspection to tell the difference.

Being a normal-looking pair of glasses means that Ray-Ban and Facebook had to make feature concessions. These glasses can only store a few pictures and videos before they're full. Video clips are limited to 30 seconds or less. Even with light use, the battery will likely last half a day if worn regularly.

There isn't even a way to use and charge the glasses at the same time. Instead, you must take them off your face, fold the temples in to expose the charging pins, and put them away in the case. That makes it physically impossible to use them while charging, eliminating the possibility that these could ever be used as a way for Facebook to spy on you or for you to truly spy on someone else.

The purposeful limitations make it essentially impossible to use these for spying or any truly worrisome task.

Connected to that, is the lack of any internet connectivity to the glasses. To transfer pictures or video, you must pair your glasses with the Facebook View app on your smartphone — which connects to the glasses via Bluetooth — then you need to download them to your phone before you can share them.

The View app offers a way to automatically transfer photos and video when they are taken, which takes one of the steps out of the equation. However, you still need to manually share each and every picture or video taken. There's no automated posting feature, no live streaming feature, and no way for the glasses to accidentally share something you didn't expressly prepare ahead of time.

The one glaring issue in Ray-Ban's design, from a privacy perspective, is the recording LED next to each camera lens. Pearlman agrees.

"While they gave the glasses user a choice of when to record, the other people who are subject to that recording don't necessarily have that choice context or control," she said.

A small, white recording LED not only goes against the industry standard — that's a red dot, which is universally recognized as a way to tell when a camera is recording — and it's far too easy to cover up.

It's because of these types of scenarios that Pearlman warned, "this is a very complex time of redefining privacy, and this is what privacy means in immersive technology."

The Facebook name is still a major barrier of entry for many people considering it as a viable product.

Pearlman and the organization she founded, the XRSI, have developed a privacy framework for these very reasons. This framework was created to help product creators understand what people are looking for in terms of privacy for these types of immersive or connected gadgets.

But here's the deal: Even if Facebook followed these guidelines closely and marketed it correctly, the Facebook name is still a significant barrier of entry for many people considering it as a viable product.

At the end of the day, every one of the products and apps we use collects our data, no matter who makes it. The difference here is that Facebook has broken trust with its users to the degree that it's going to take a long time to fix — if it's even possible to fix at all. For Facebook, this was a losing battle from the start and, despite making a rather impressive product with Ray-Ban, is a battle they simply cannot win at this time.

Nicholas Sutrich
Senior Content Producer — Smartphones & VR
Nick started with DOS and NES and uses those fond memories of floppy disks and cartridges to fuel his opinions on modern tech. Whether it's VR, smart home gadgets, or something else that beeps and boops, he's been writing about it since 2011. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @Gwanatu