Technology & Freedom

Homeland Security takes down movie theater patron with Google Glasses

Homeland Security takes down movie theater patron with Google Glasses

This has got to be one of the all-time strangest stories from the annals of law enforcement gone wild.  Reading between the lines, it looks like the motion picture industry is flexing its clout with Big Government to fight movie piracy… and it’s got more clout to flex than the Hulk.

The entire story, with updates and confirmation, is related by Julie Strietelmeier at The Gadgeteer blog, who has been valiantly working to stay on top of something she didn’t realize would become a huge news event.  As its name implies, The Gadgeteer is a blog for lovers of high-tech gadgetry – in this case Google Glass, which is a set of glasses that can have computer data projected on to them, allowing you to walk around with an eye full of electronic information like The Terminator.  (Does Google market it that way?  They really should.)  The device includes a camera, which could be – and, let’s face it, surely has been – employed to record a movie off the screen.  They’re only currently available to a small number of people who applied for entry into the pilot program.  When that concludes, they’ll go on sale to the general public, at which time civilization will apparently convulse.

It turns out that you can get Google Glasses made with actual prescription lenses, a package that costs north of $2000.  A gentleman with just such glasses wore them into an AMC theater in Ohio several times without incident, turning off the computer system so he could enjoy his movies, but then he went to see the new spy thriller “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” and all hell broke loose.  Evidently someone at the theater decided to call the cops on him, and when I say “cops,” I mean Homeland Security.

And they showed up before the movie was over!  From the first-hand account emailed to The Gadgeteer:

Because I don’t want Glass to distract me during the movie, I turn them off (but since my prescription lenses are on the frame, I still wear them). About an hour into the movie (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), a guy comes near my seat, shoves a badge that had some sort of a shield on it, yanks the Google Glass off my face and says “follow me outside immediately”. It was quite embarrassing and outside of the theater there were about 5-10 cops and mall cops. Since I didn’t catch his name in the dark of the theater, I asked to see his badge again and I asked what was the problem and I asked for my Glass back. The response was “you see all these cops you know we are legit, we are with the ‘federal service’ and you have been caught illegally taping the movie”.

I was surprised by this and as I was obviously just having a nice Saturday evening night out with my wife and not taping anything whether legally or illegally, I tried to explain that this is a misunderstanding. I tried to explain that he’s holding rather expensive hardware that costed me $1500 for Google Glass and over $600 for the prescription glasses. The response was that I was searched and more stuff was taken away from me (specifically my personal phone, my work phone – both of which were turned off, and my wallet). After an embarrassing 20-30 minutes outside the movie theater, me and my wife were conducted into two separate rooms in the “management” office of Easton Mall, where the guy with the badge introduced himself again and showed me a different ID. His partner introduced herself too and showed me a similar looking badge.

As the Ron Burgundy character in “Anchorman” might say, “Boy, that escalated quickly.”

It was eventually determined that these were Homeland Security agents – a detail confirmed by the Columbus Dispatchwhich obtained an email from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that rather profoundly understated what was done to the unfortunate theater patron.  They said the agents “briefly interviewed a man suspected of using an electronic recording device to record a film,” but in fact he was grilled for the better part of two hours – with probing questions about his work, residence, how much money he makes, and how many computers he owns, plus threats about how he was running out of time to “come clean” and give up his contacts in the movie piracy ring he was suspected of working for.

Eventually the authorities got around to plugging the suspected pirate’s Google Glasses and phone into a laptop, downloading and examining all of his files, and concluding that he was not, in fact, recording the movie – a step he thought they should have taken before interrogating him for over an hour.  When the ordeal was over, he learned that someone from the Motion Picture Association of America was indeed responsible for bringing the heat down on him.  He was told the theater in question had big piracy problems, which is presumably why a huge squad of cops and federal agents were standing by to swoop in and take him down, and also why the theater management didn’t simply ask him not to wear the Google Glasses in the first place.  They must have been really hoping to make that big headline movie piracy bust.

Oddly enough, the Columbus Dispatch got an email from a Motion Picture Association spokesman that said “the Association has seen no proof that Glass is a significant threat that could result in content theft.”  Evidently the rep who called in the ten-officer crackdown in Ohio didn’t get that memo.  Not to stir up trouble, but… why wouldn’t a pair of eyeglasses with a built-in camera be a significant threat for content theft?

The Google Glass user was ultimately released back into the wild, and given a couple of free movie tickets for his trouble, apparently without receiving much in the way of an apology.

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