Features

net.wars: The View

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 27 March 2009


"Am I in it?"

Wendy M Grossman

That seems to be the first question people ask about Street View. Most people I know actually want to see themselves caught unawares; the ones who weren't captured are actively disappointed, while the ones who were are excited.

At least as many – mostly people I don't know – are angry and unhappy and feel their privacy has been invaded just by having the cars drive down their street taking photographs. Hundreds have complained and had pictures taken down. The Register called the cars Orwellian spycars and snoopmobiles, and charted their inexorable progress across the UK on a mash-up.

I can, I think, understand the emotions on both sides. Most of the take-down requests are understandable. Of course, there are some that seem ridiculous. Number 10 Downing Street? The Blairs' house? Will they claim copyright in their homes and sue, like Barbra Streisand in 2003?

What I can't understand is the relative size of the fuss over Street View compared to the pervasive general apathy about CCTV. Street View is one collection of images that will gradually age. CCTV is always with us.

Privacy International, who, to be fair, have persistently and publicly criticized CCTV, has filed a formal complaint with the Information Commissioner and asked the ICO to order the service offline while investigating.

Google, of course, has absolutely no excuse this time. When, two years ago, Street View originally launched in the US, it seemed as though Google had (yet again) failed at privacy – but that it had failed in a very geeky way. You could easily imagine the engineers at Google who started up Street View going, "This is so cool! You can see into people's windows!"

You can also see them never thinking of applying to each local council for permission and having to wait for a public inquiry and local vote because that would take too long, and we have this idea today!

Google should have learned from the outcry that followed the launch that many people do not react casually to discovering that their images have been captured and put online. The town of North Oaks, Minnesota kicked them out entirely. Two years and scores of complaints weren't enough to teach the company to proceed with a little more humility and caution? Is it so difficult to imagine, when you assign people to drive around the streets taking pictures, that they might capture the strange and the embarrassing?

This isn't like Flickr, where users post millions of images of which the company has no prior knowledge and no control and where there is no organised way to search through them.

The Google employees who drive the Street View cars and operate the cameras could, oh, I don't know, actually look at their surroundings while they're doing it. Of course there are plenty of things that look innocent but aren't – the person walking into the newsagent's who's supposed to be at work at a wholly different location, say, or the couple making out on the park bench who are married but to other people.

But how hard is it to stop and think that maybe the guy urinating in public – or vomiting, or falling off a bicycle – might prefer not to have that moment immortalized on the Web? This is especially true because the Googlers themselves objected to being photographed.

It's also true that simply blurring car licence plates and people's faces isn't enough to erase all chance that they'll be identified. If you wear a lime green coat, own the only 23-year-old Nissan Prairie in London, or routinely play tennis wearing a James Randi Educational Foundation hat you're going to be easily identifiable. (Though it's arguable that if you do those things you probably don't object to standing out from the crowd.)

For all those reasons, Privacy International is right to throw the book at the company (which came bottom of the heap in PI's report on the privacy practices of major Web companies).

And yet. Google's Street View is one very large set of images captured once, and there are all sorts of valid uses for it. You can get a look at the route you're going to navigate through so you don't get lost. You can look at the neighbourhoods surrounding the prospective homes you're looking at in the property listings. And there will doubtless be dozens or hundreds of other genuinely useful things you can do with it once we've had time to think.

The privacy debate over it, therefore, has similar characteristics to the debate over file-sharing: it, too, is a dual-use technology.

CCTV is not. It has been sold to the public as a crime-prevention technology, and perhaps it seems private because we only see the images when a crime has been committed. CCTV cameras do not – as far as we know – provide anything like the quality or resolution of the Street View photographs. Yet. What Street View really exposes is not the personal moments causing all the fuss but the power we are giving the state by allowing CCTV to spread everywhere.


Technorati tags:   
No pictures! No pictures! - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).