“Smart” Contact Lenses: Spy Gadget or Formidable Threat to Privacy?

By: Genevieve de Guzman,

Wearable technology is not new to the world of action and science fiction movies, but this technology has developed from being mere speculation to having real-world possibilities. As technology becomes an increasingly integral part of people’s daily lives, it seems an inevitability that it also becomes increasingly integrated with our physical beings, and what could be more intimate than an individual’s perception of their world?

Google pioneered “smart” glasses with Google Glass[1] and “smart” contact lenses with glucose-sensing and monitoring contact lenses[2] and solar-powered contact lenses capable of communicating with computers and mobile devices and collecting biological data such as internal body temperature and blood-alcohol content.[3] More recently, Google filed a patent describing a device akin to a bionic eye.[4] This device is described as an intra-ocular implant that features an electronic lens that can be controlled to provide an optical power to focus images alternatively, essentially correcting and enhancing vision.[5] However, this device serves less as a contact lens and more as a surgical implant.

Arguably following Google’s lead, other researchers and companies have reportedly began developing similar “smart” contact lenses. Scientists at the University of Michigan are working on night vision contact lenses that uses thermal imaging to view a full spectrum of light, including ultraviolet light.[6] Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are developing contact lenses that autofocuses within milliseconds without the loss of contrast and sensitivity that come with glasses, conventional contact lenses, and surgery.[7] Johnson & Johnson are collaborating with a subsidiary of HP, Inc. to develop a contact lens that can adapt to the environment to “reduce glare and eyestrain indoors and out[doors],” change the cosmetic coloring of eyes, and treat presbyopia.[8] Swiss start-up company Sensimed recently received approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start human testing for its contact lenses that promise to cure glaucoma.[9]

Samsung and Sony also join the race to develop “smart” contact lenses but aim to make them smarter and to reach a wider consumer base. Both companies describe contact lenses with built-in cameras, various movement sensors, and antennae that transmit and receive data as well as supply and receive electric power.[10] These contact lenses may be considered a response to the growing use of wearable technology and social media. Samsung filed its patent application in South Korea in 2014 and notes that the lenses would “allow users to view augmented reality” in more natural ways with a small display unit in the center of the lens and can sync up to smartphones wirelessly via the antenna.[11] Motion sensors in the lenses would allow the user to control the lens’ camera feature using blinking, similar to how Google Glass captured photos with winking, and a playback feature.[12] Samsung seems to function like a contact lens version of Google Glass.[13] Sony filed its patent application in the United States. Its lens would use piezoelectric sensor (example of pressure sensor), an infrared sensor, an acceleration sensor, a gyro sensor (example of tilt sensor), or an ocular potential measurement unit that converts eye movement into electrical power to control the smaller versions of part of a modern digital camera embedded in the lens.[14] Unlike the Samsung Lens, the Sony lens can store data without the need for a smartphone as well as contain features such as autofocus, automatic exposure adjustment, aperture controls, adjustable zoom, and playback.[15]

While these advancements in wearable technology are substantial steps toward the future, “smart” contact lenses differ from other wearable products in their covertness. Needless to say, these “smart” contact lenses present many privacy and security concerns. Google Glass raised similar issues, but its design was distinguishable while these lenses would enable clandestine photography that is virtually undetectable. Privacy with these lenses, in public places and even in semi-public places such as restrooms, would be virtually impossible. Covert surveillance of private meetings dealing with sensitive information, unconsented recordings of intimate interactions, violations of stalking laws, and the lenses’ susceptibility to hacking, involuntary use, malfunction, etc. are all necessary considerations, not to mention social harms as technology will be an even more intimate, integral part of daily life. This could also add a new dimension to the discussion of law enforcement body cameras and government surveillance of its citizens. The Sony and Samsung patent applications have not yet been granted, nor would their issuance guarantee that the products would be on the market any time soon. Until then, these “smart” contact lenses will be the subjects of conspiracy theories, hypothetical analyses, and spy movies.

 

 

[1] See U.S. Patent No. 9,195,067 (filed Sep. 28, 2012).

[2] See U.S. Patent No. 8,985,763 (filed Sep. 26, 2012).

[3] See U.S. Patent No. 9,158,133 (filed Jul. 26, 2012).

[4] See U.S. Patent Application No. 20160113760 (filed Oct. 24, 2014).

[5] See id.

[6] See Kate McAlpine, New tech could lead to night vision contact lenses, Michigan News (Mar. 16, 2014), http://www.ns.umich.edu/new/releases/22042-thermal-vision-graphene-light-detector-first-to-span-infrared-spectrum (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[7] See Fish and insects guide design for future contact lenses, EurekAlert! (Mar. 14, 2016) https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/nei-fai031116.php (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[8] See Richard Kirkner, J&J’s Plans for Smart & 3D Printable Contact Lenses, OIS News (June 8, 2016) http://ois.net/jjs-plans-for-smart-3d-printable-contact-lenses/ (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[9] See Sensimed announces first-of-a-kind product approval for its Contact Lens based sensing device by U.S. FDA, Sensimed (Mar. 15, 2016) http://www.sensimed.ch/images/pdf/PR_2016-03-15_sensimed_FDA_US_E.pdf (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[10] See Sony U.S. Patent Application No. 20160097940 (filed Feb. 12, 2014); S. Kor. Patent Application No. (filed Sept. 26, 2014).

[11] See Danielle Muoio, Samsung just patented a contact lens with a built-in camera, Business Insider (Apr. 11, 2016) http://www.businessinsider.com/samsung-filed-a-patent-for-smart-contact-lenses-2016-4 (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[12] See Amit Chowdhry, Samsung Patent Unveils Idea For Smart Contact Lenses With A Camera And Display, Forbes (Apr. 11, 2016) http://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2016/04/11/samsung-patent-unveils-smart-contact-lenses-with-a-camera-and-display/#438a947067be (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

[13] See id.

[14] See Sony U.S. Patent Application No. 20160097940 (filed Feb. 12, 2014).

[15] See Sony Filed a Patent for Video-Recording Contact Lens, Huffington Post (Apr. 28, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sony-contact-lens-camera_us_57220fc6e4b0f309baefd3f2 (last visited Nov. 17, 2016).

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