11 Jun 2007

Google Street View

Privacy activists have been complaining ever since last month. And now people in the Street View photos have started complaining as well, causing Google to start taking down pictures on request.

There's an interesting privacy dilemma developing here. Google supporters point out that Street View pics are taken in public spaces, and as the old underground poet once said, when you're in public you can't choose your audience. On the other hand, say opponents, there's a huge difference between appearing in public and someone (or something) documenting what you do and publishing it.

Google's not necessarily doing that, and arguably neither are fan sites like that collect and post Street View pics, but don't name names or post contact info of the people in the shots. That said, give it six months and some bright spark will come up with a widget that does just that.

Another question that doesn't seem to get asked nearly enough for my taste is this: is Street View any less acceptable than public surveillance cameras that can already bark orders at people (like they do in London now) and run facial recognition software that one day will actually work‾ Is it okay if the cops have footage of you coming out of a strip club in Miami after lunch hour, just so long as your boss, spouse or blabbermouth neighbor doesn't see it‾

It's worth sorting out these questions now, because history has shown that for all the talk about privacy concerns, many people tend to be willing to opt-in and trade off privacy if there's a benefit to it - like smart cards that can track what you buy and check out at the library but offer the convenience of faster service and personalized discounts for loyal customers, for example. As the Internet goes mobile and we see the rise of location-aware advertising that targets passers-by based on their phone's user profile, this debate will come up repeatedly - not to mention every time we get a new breaking story about personal data leaks.

As for Street View, I have mixed feelings. I agree that public behavior is fair game and that individuals are ultimately responsible for their own conduct, whether it's witnesses by one person or millions. But then I don't live in any of the cities covered by the service, so it's not like I have to worry about all of you seeing photos of that thing that happened over the weekend involving the muffins and the wardrobe malfunction.

Lucky for you.

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