A systematic intrusion into people’s lives
The director of Big Brother Watch argues that Google has failed to respond properly to privacy concerns.
Google is an enormous company running many products and platforms, each of which poses potential privacy issues. I will confine myself here to discussing Google Street View. There are two separate issues here – the fact that Street View cars captured data from members of the public using wifi as they passed by and the concomitant implications for privacy, and whether Street View is intrusive per se.
On the first question, as I maintained that what Google did was ‘standard operating procedure’ for software engineers – that if one needs a component for some purpose and it’s served by an available component which also performs other irrelevant tasks, you use it anyway. If that is standard practice then it is wrong. In any case, the argument ‘I do wrong because others also do so’ is worthless.
Equally, arguing that people somehow ‘deserved it’ or have no right to complain because the data was transmitted via public networks is fatuous. Many people use public networks, sharing their access with friends or colleagues – sometimes because they don’t know how to protect their wifi. Certainly, they should do so, but the fact that they don’t hardly relieves the wrongdoer of culpability. By that logic, granny shouldn’t leave the house as she’s so easy to rob.
As Privacy International’s Simon Davies said in his debate contribution, Google is hardly the only offender in privacy terms. Facebook and the social networking media more generally have privacy questions they need to answer. But of all the providers and organisations working online, Google is the only one I know of to have roamed the streets taking data from the airwaves. That does put them in a special category.
Like most companies in the online space, Google can generally defend its products when challenged about privacy or intrusiveness by pointing to the implied or explicit consent of users to surrender or generate data which will be retained by the company. But this does not apply to Street View images, which are of homes whose owners have not consented to having such images shared, and of members of the public who have not consented to having their bodies displayed. And unlike the data-seizing issue, Google denies having done anything wrong per se in running Street View.
That is a question we ought genuinely to consider. It is my view that Street View is intrusive per se. ‘It’s nothing you couldn’t see walking along the street’, the company’s defenders say, as if we are all 10 feet tall and had panopticonic vision which permanently records everything around us in glorious technicolour for later review at our or anyone else’s leisure. I suppose it’s nice when a company does something for burglars. Or indeed for murderers, such as Steven Hodgson, who used Google Earth to target his victim’s home.
There are the more everyday privacy issues, too, such as the little boy shown naked in June, or before that, another boy in March. Google takes masses of pictures of us and our property without our consent and without giving us notice, and then tells us that if there are problems, it’s up to us to identify them. This gets things the wrong way round. It’s Google’s responsibility, but its representatives respond that an opt-in system would make Google Street View unworkable. But Google’s business concerns are not my priority
For many, Street View cameras are an upsetting invasion of privacy. People are not consulted before the Street View van arrives in their town, they are not asked if they approve of images of their homes and bodies being put online, and yet Google relies on the public to point out where they have gone wrong. And despite the automatic face-blurring function that the programme runs when images of people are captured, many can often be identified by distinctive groupings, by hair or clothing – and of course the actual image is sitting somewhere unblurred in Google’s archives. Big Brother Watch supporters have told us of their concerns about, for example, images of their homes and gardens being online, showing the distance of their gate to the child’s paddling pool, the angles from which the pool can be seen from the house, the type of alarm they have on their house.
We live in a world of technology in which everyone seems to share everything. It seems to surprise those like Google, who live and work in the tech bubble, that people mind such intrusions. I think that they genuinely didn’t foresee the problems arising with Street View, because the idea that one might wish to opt out is alien to those at Google. But – strange as it may seem to say it in this age – anonymity is not a crime.
Alex Deane is a barrister and the director of email@example.com for further information and to request a place.
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