For a product that has yet to officially hit the market, Google Glass has already caused heads to turn. 


Google Glass is a wearable computer that looks like a pair of eyeglasses, only lens-free, with a small device attached to the right frame. It will allow users to access the Internet, take photos and even shoot short videos. Users could activate it by speaking or touching it, although one program in the works could eliminate the need for gestures or voice commands. 


With only a few thousand test pairs on the street, the reaction to Google Glass has ranged from excitement to alarm. Early adopters can’t wait to slip a pair behind their ears – while gambling casinos in Las Vegas, bars in Seattle and legislators in West Virginia have already taken steps to pre-emptively ban them, the New York Times reported recently. 


It’s the latest chapter in a debate that is older than you might imagine: How does technology test the boundaries between privacy and the First Amendment?


Technology was instrumental in solving the Boston Marathon bombing case a month ago. Knowing there were thousands of smart phones and cameras in the crowd, authorities tapped the power of crowd-sourcing by putting out a call for pictures, videos and other tips. 


Investigators plowed through thousands of pieces of information, including shots from mounted surveillance cameras, to help identify the bombers. Facial recognition technology narrowed the search, social media spread the word and thermal imaging led to the apprehension of a suspect hiding under a tarp in a boat just outside Boston. 


It was a powerful message about how technology can help resolve public safety emergencies. In fact, an upcoming PBS episode of NOVA will examine the role played by technology and science in capturing the Boston bombing suspects. 


For many people, however, technology comes with a troubling flip side when it comes to privacy. 


The federal government’s seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press, as well as the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, raise questions about how public officials might employ cutting-edge technology in more intrusive ways. Some companies are reluctant to work with government agencies in devising cybersecurity strategies for fear it will lead to more problems than it will solve. 


It’s a debate that involves tech companies, privacy advocates, politicians and the courts, to name a few. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted in April to require law enforcement to have a warrant to seize email, a much higher standard than a simple subpoena. A California district court ruled recently that private messages on social media are protected without a warrant. 


Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.


The same people who might love the latest gadgets might also find themselves on the wrong end of the technology, either intentionally or by accident. 


Then again, the search for techno-privacy balance is nothing new to modern society. 


Writing in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and his law partner Samuel Warren said “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops’.” 


They were writing about the mass commercialization of photography, which is ubiquitous today and has been so for nearly a century. Likewise, few people today seem to care – or at least have become adjusted to – all types of social and electronic media that make every user a paparazzi-in-waiting. For the most part, those are technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago. 


Some tech companies take the attitude it’s not about their innovation – which the marketplace should not hold back – but about people doing dumb things they shouldn’t do in the first place. Others are somewhat more introspective, recognizing that technology can invite regulation if asocial people consistently use it for asocial purposes. 


We want to buy cool, new stuff – and we also want to protect what little real privacy we might have left in public settings. Between the law, social values and technology itself, perhaps the uneasy balance between “closet” and “house-top” can be maintained.