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I recently blogged about my concerns for privacy as social media and lifestreaming become the norm. As Google launches its Streetview product in the UK, my concern about privacy has intensified considerably.
With lifestreaming over social media it is our choice (usually) about what private information we put into the public sphere. With Google Streetview, however, it appears to be Google's choice with limited means for us to stop them.
What Is Streetview?
Streetview is a function of Google Maps whereupon you can get closeup images of buildings and streets taken at street level by an army of Google photographers.
Last autumn they were all over Manchester - cars with the Google logo on the side and a camera on a pole affixed to the roof.
By law, Google has to obscure faces and car number plates of people and vehicles that happen to be in the shots - but they are also, by law, allowed to take any picture they want from a public place - even if they're photographing private property.
The intention is to give close-up views of every street and building on the planet to go alongside the Maps - so you know what places look like before you travel to them. This seems innocent enough until you start to think of the privacy implications and the fact that we're being distracted from really considering these implications because it's fun to play around with Streetview.
How is Streetview Potentially Dangerous?
If you know a person well, would a blurry face stop you from identifying them in a picture? Could you not recognise them from other features including their profile and their clothing?
What if you were hiding from an abusive ex in a refuge and your ex spotted you in a photo on the same street as that refuge?
What if your partner spotted you in a photo coming out of a place of ill repute? Or out of a neighbours house, adjusting your clothing?
Or what if your girlfriend sees an image of you coming out of a shop that sells diamond engagement rings while looking at pictures of the local high street - thereby ruining the surprise (or you have to cover up that what you were buying was for your OTHER girlfriend)?
Far-fetched, perhaps, but shouldn't you have control over images of you and where they appear?
What about the privacy issue behind Google not only taking pictures of private property, but distributing them on a global scale?
Yes, it is legal to take pictures of private property from a public road - but in the past mass distribution on this level was unthinkable - so it was never worrisome.
Yes, these are buildings that somebody walking down the street could see - but they'd have to get to that street first.
Yes, somebody might take a picture of your house and publish it somewhere - but how would people find that image easily and associate it with your house? They probably wouldn't. Now, all they have to do is type your address into Google Maps.
Isn't Privacy a Basic Human Right?
Why is this an issue? Well, for one it's your private property - what right should somebody else have to distribute images of your home? What if they photographed your house in the middle of summer when you'd been on holiday for 3 weeks and the grass was knee-high? People would think you didn't keep your lawn very well and that image would be on the internet for all eternity. What if you'd taken your curtains down for cleaning and the image showed the inside of your house?
But, what if they have an image of you and you don't know it? What if this image is damaging and you don't find out until it's too late?
The privacy implications to this are huge and Google is taking advantage of the fact that as this has never been a real issue before, the law over taking photographs in public does not take the implications of mass distribution on this scale into account - and it certainly doesn't take the risks to our physical well-being, our good name and our human rights into account.
Why is the standard that you have to opt out rather than the standard being that you have to opt in? If you don't know about Streetview - or don't know when it spreads to your town or village - then you won't know to opt out - even if it's something you would do, had you been given a choice at the outset.
How Protected Is Our Private Data Really?
When we consider how much information Google keeps about us - more than our government - there is more cause for concern.
If you have a Google Account they know your name and they can associate it with everything else you do online. If you search on the same computer where you access your Google Account they have details of everything you've ever looked for on the internet.
They know your IP address and they can see what you've viewed or even purchased on any site that uses Google Analytics.
If you use Gmail they know what every email you send and receive says. If you use Google Maps and/or Google Latitude they know where you go, they know your address and they can, using Streetview, identify your home.
If you use Picasa they know what you and all your friends and family look like.
If you purchase anything with Google Checkout they have your credit card details.
If you use Google Desktop they know about all the documents on your hard drive - potentially.
Yes, we have Data Protection laws here in the UK, but they have that data out in the world on their own servers (and the only way to prevent it is not to use any Google service or visit any website that uses any Google service) and not everywhere has those same laws. The regulations constraining what Google can do with that information protect you here in the UK, and in some other countries, but in others who's to say what they might do with that information? Who's to know what they're doing behind the scenes in the U.S. or the U.K. that doesn't violate current UK Data Protection laws but still might give us cause for concern (or outrage) if we knew about it?
Is anybody in a position of power taking steps to prevent future uses of that data either here in the UK or on a global scale?
It's worrying enough to know that with people documenting their lives on video, with cameraphones and streaming these images, along with reams of text about their daily minutia onto the internet we have very little control over images that friends, family and acquaintances upload onto the web or what they say about us in their blogs and on their social media profiles. It's worse now that multinational corporations are getting into the act - and it's even harder to find or stop.
Now is the time for governments, philosophers and legal experts - not just in the UK, but around the world - to really consider the implications and to start setting guidelines to protect our privacy before modern technology takes it away altogether without us even noticing - because we've been distracted with bread, circuses and cool pictures on the internet.
Oh and Google, please don't put pictures of me, my house or my car on the internet without asking me first! I don't care if it's legal, it's still not morally right.