Can Wearing Google Glass Get You Kicked Out of a Movie? SCOTUS May Help Decide

Accusations of movie piracy highlight upcoming Supreme Court cases on Fourth Amendment and mobile devices.

An attendee tries Google Glass during the Google I/O developer conference on May 17, 2013, in San Francisco.

Agents claiming to be federal authorities believed a Columbus, Ohio moviegoer was using his Google Glass as a recording device.

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Making waves on both entertainment and tech blogs is the account of a Columbus, Ohio man who was removed from a Saturday night showing of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" when the theater accused him of recording the film on the Google Glass device he was wearing. According to the man – who has remained anonymous after first sending his story to tech blog The Gadgeteer and later following up with Android news site Phandroid – he was wearing Google Glass as his prescription lenses, as he had done at movie theaters in the past.

This time, agents claiming to be federal authorities took him and his wife to separate rooms in the mall attached to the AMC theater for interrogation. Once the man was able to prove that he was not recording the movie by plugging the device into a computer and displaying his personal files, he was allowed to leave and was given free movie passes by the MPAA, which at this point apparently was also involved.

According to federal copyright law, unauthorized recording of a film in a movie theater is a criminal offense, and movie theater owners have every right to work with law enforcement to crack down on those attempting to do it. NBC News confirmed that Homeland Security Investigations agents from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement were at the scene, but according to a statement said the man "voluntarily answered questions" that "confirmed to authorities that the suspected recording device was also a pair of prescription eye glasses in which the recording function had been inactive."

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In the man's account, it was he who suggested the authorities look through his Google Glass files to prove he was not recording the film. Nevertheless, the scenario brings up Fourth Amendment questions, including whether the man could be required to submit his Google Glass to authorities for inspection, particularly without a warrant, and also what would happen if they found evidence on his phone of him committing unrelated crimes.

"This is a complicated question. If someone was holding a camcorder to a screen, that's a different situation where law enforcement has a better sense if someone is breaking a law," says G.S. Hans, an attorney working at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Here there are many reasons to assume someone is wearing Google Glass to a movie and to assume someone is breaking the law is not so clear cut."

In situations like these, the Supreme Court may able to provide a little more guidance to the role and rights of authorities to search cell phones and other digital devices without a warrant, with two cases they are scheduled to hear later this spring. Friday, the Supreme Court announced it would take on Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, both cases dealing with authorities examining data in mobile devices without warrants, an issue that varies widely across state laws and court rulings.

In the Riley case, a San Diego man was convicted of attempted murder, among other charges, using evidence obtained from his cell phone after he was stopped by police for an entirely separate incident. The Wurie case involves law enforcement using details from a call log from the flip phone belonging to a suspected drug dealer, evidence that later was thrown by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Their decision on the two separate cases could have wide ranging implications on the Fourth Amendment and digital privacy, including how authorities deal with moviegoers suspected of recording films on digital devices, like Google Glass, that have a variety of uses. (As SCOTUSblog noted, the Wurie case concerns an outdated and simplistic flip phone, while the Riley case involves a more advanced smartphone). "We would argue that the access level required for wearables should be the same as for cellphones given the similarities between the devices," Hans says.

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