Australian public servant wearing Google Goggles banned from departmental offices and warned away from all government buildings

I’ve learnt from a source in a major Australian Government department that a public servant who showed up for work yesterday morning wearing Google Glass was unceremoniously escorted out of the building by security.

The public servant was given written correspondence from HR, signed by a senior manager, banning them access to any departmental offices and was warned away from entering any other Australian Government offices wearing Google Glass until their case was fully investigated.

Promotional image of Google Glass from Google

The letter included details that simply by wearing Google Glass the public servant might pose a privacy risk to other staff, and that it also raised security concerns in the workplace as senior management could not know what the person was filming or photographing.

It referenced an article in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review (since updated), which highlighted the potential collision between Australia’s new privacy laws and the use of personal recording devices such as Google Glass, Proposed privacy laws put blinkers on Google Glass.

Apparently the public servant had borrowed a pair of Google Glass from a friend, who had access to one of the few (around eight) pairs of Google Glasses in Australia through his work.

He had worn them to work to show his colleagues their capabilities and begin a discussion of the ramifications for their department in providing services to the public.

The public servant is now being investigated to determine whether they had ever previously brought ‘personal recording devices’ to work – apparently ignoring the mobile phones carried by most workers today.

The public servant is currently being threatened with a reassessment of their grade and has been requested to undertake a psychological evaluation to assess whether this is a once-off or a pattern of behaviour, due to the tendency of the individual to bring ‘new and unapproved technologies’ into the office.

I’ll provide more details as I get them, however I have been asked not to identify the agency or individual as it could prejudice the process.

New technologies are a challenge for society and organisations, as they can transform social norms and over-turn bureaucratic apple carts.

However it is important to avoid over-reacting to potential risks and consider the benefits as well.

In this case I think the department has massively over-reacted, possibly because one or a few senior people had read an article in a newspaper (the AFR article referenced above) and leapt to the worst conclusions.

I’ve seen this happen previously in concerns over social media, where a few individuals, without personal experience of specific channels, have reviewed a (scaremongering) media representation of the risks at face value and responded without due consideration and thought.

In this situation, politely asking the person to refrain from recording and transmitting on premises, except with consent and where there’s no potentially confidential documents in the background, could have sufficed. Or even asking them not to wear them on premises until the department could look at their capabilities first.

However it doesn’t surprise me to see an agency leap first and then ask for forgiveness later – isn’t that what we’re often told to do in the workplace?

It is also important to keep in mind that just because the form changes, the policy may not need to. It may be possible to consider cameras, mobile phones, Google Glass, smart watches and even artificial eyes with cameras within the same policy framework – both the risks AND the benefits.

What agencies need to avoid doing is leaping at shadows and, where technology already exists (like the Google Glass), take the necessary steps to review their privacy and security policies to ensure that they cover devices adequately.

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