Sunday, June 03, 2007

Google Maps Street View

Much noise has been made recently about the fact that Google is starting to provide street-level pictures to their Google Maps web service (which already includes maps, directions, traffic info, aerial/satellite photography, and a local-business finder). Which of those privacy concerns are legitimate? Which are only the product of people who do not think enough about the information they leave behind all over the place as they go about their daily activities? Some privacy concerns about this service are almost legitimate (you will not hear me say this very often!), most are at least somewhat misguided, and a couple are so hilariously ignorant to be worth me singling out their authors and making fun of them.

This post will primarily be in response to the posts and comments at BoingBoing about this issue. BoingBoing is a great blog that brings to my attention many cool (or outrageous) things every day, and I am a big fan of most of the stuff they support. Except for their privacy paranoia and their support for the "right" to not be accountable for what you say and do online.

Before going to the specific posts I want to respond to, here are two simple points:

Point 1: When you are in public, do not expect privacy. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? Not to a lot of people. When you exit your house, get in your car, drive down the road, park your car, and get into a building, photons bouncing off of you are broadcasting your precise location, continuously, at the speed of light, to anyone who cares to catch these photons and extract that information from them. If you are having a conversation in a public place, your sound waves may not travel as far or as fast as those photons, but they can still be made out from quite a ways away. Is it wrong for people to collect this information? If so, then shouldn't you cover your eyes and ears when you go to a public place where there are other people? Is it wrong to drive down the street in a van (or VW Bug) and take pictures of people?

Point 2: Here is where I make a rare near-concession to the privacy nuts. It's wrong for me to capture or publish images/sounds of the inside of your home, beyond what a person can see/hear from the street. So I may not go onto your property to record such images/sounds, and I may not use enhancing devices (telephoto lenses, parabolic microphones) to record such images/sounds. I say this all based on California's anti-paparazzo law, which Jennifer Aniston used to sue a paparazzo photographer (I mean this kind, not this kind) who took pictures of her naked in her home. (You can read more about Jennifer Aniston's lawsuit here, here, here, and here). In other words, you do NOT have a reasonable expectation of privacy when something in your house can be seen from the street by a passer-by. A reasonable person will agree that the titles of your books and DVDs, the content of your computer's screen, and anything not visible through a window or door, cannot be seen by a passer-by, and thus can be thought of as "private". But your cat right by the window, the license plate of your parked car, possibly a poster on your wall, and of course you yourself through an open window, can be seen by a passer-by without binoculars and whatnot, so those things are NOT private, unless you close the window. (I presume this also applies to businesses, and that police warrants and criminal activities invalidate some of these rights). So, actually, it is NOT wrong for Google to capture/process/publish what you get from photons and sound waves coming from within a private residence, as long as an average human walking down the street could capture and interpret those photons or sound waves without the aid of technology.

Anyways, here are the BoingBoing posts in question:

This first post is where I learned about this Street View thing: Mary Kalin-Casey writes BoingBoing outraged that on Google Maps you can see a picture of her cat sitting just inside her window.

Rich Gibson's reply says exactly what I was thinking, better than I could have said it: "Boing Boing regularly blogs about evil security guards beating down poor photographers who just want to take pictures of pretty buildings. How is the case made different when the 'poor photographer' is replaced by a van of camers, and the evil security guard is replaced by [...] a cat owner?".

Which one is it? Are we free to take pictures at public places and post them on the internet, or aren't we? I say "Yes", and BoingBoing usually agrees.

The next post to discuss the privacy implications of Street View has both the most nearly-legitimate privacy concern, and the most misguided.

The almost-valid concern is when Ms. Kalin-Casey says "The next step might be seeing books on my shelf. If the government was doing this, people would be outraged". Her husband quickly added, "It’s like peeping". If extremely-high-resolution images were made available, then this would, indeed, be an invasion of privacy, since it would show more than the unaided eye could see from the street, like a paparazzo with a long lens. However, Google's images of people's houses (especially when you look into windows and doors) are NOT as sharp as what a passer-by would see, and that's the bottom line. No invasion of privacy.

This concern leads her to ask a series of questions. I think she asks them believing them to be rhetorical, but they do have answers. Let's go over them:

"Where do we draw the line between public and private? [...] By opening my windows for some much-needed light and air, am I granting permission for my living room to be broadcast worldwide? I don’t think I am. [...] When does it move from a grainy picture of the cat to a high-res image where you can see small details in my apartment? When do I have to choose between sunlight and unseen threats to privacy? It’s one thing to be monitored on the public streets of London. I think it’s another to wonder if, right now, someone or something is taking my picture through my living room window."

Given "Point 2" I made at the beginning of this post, it's pretty clear where those lines are. Indeed, the line is drawn: It is illegal to take (let alone publish) pictures that show the inside of a private residence (without permission from the resident) if those images show more detail than a passer-by can see. When you open your windows, it has always been the case that you give up some privacy: People will be able to look into your living room (Do you walk around your place naked when the windows are open? I sure don't), and this is not wrong unless they are using binoculars, telephoto lenses, or parabolic microphones. And I don't see how "new technology" changes this; Spyglasses have been around for a heck of a long time, at least since the 1600s. The only difference now is, if someone can see something, they can put it on the web. To expect that someone will see something and, out of the goodness of their hearts, NOT put it on the web, is unreasonable.

"There's a reasonable expectation of who is able to see into your house when driving past at the speed limit, and that expectation doesn't include everyone in the world with a web browser".

I'm not sure this is still the case. Heck, some people record EVERYTHING they see (1) and put it online (2). The rise of "many to many" technologies means that, if someone can see something, everyone might be able to see it. Denying this fact will not make it go away. We're getting closer to a "transparent society" (1, 2, 3). One aspect of this is: To counteract the prevalence of cameras whose owners do not share the content captured, private citizens should record as much as they can themselves and make this data publicly available.

But I digress. My point is, if anything about the inside of your home is visible on Google Maps Street View that is more detailed than what a passerby could see, then you should sue Google. (Here's the relevant law again, and here and here is some more useful reading). But until then, Google is not doing anything wrong.

Now, despite her mostly almost-valid concerns, here's where Ms. Kalin-Casey deserves to get made fun of:

"It’s my feeling that we should know what kind of monitoring we’re subject to and when".

Wait wait wait, even in public places? Like I said in "Point 1" above, when in public, you are emitting photons and sound waves in every direction. Are you saying that everyone who is capturing them needs to tell you about it? If I want to take a picture or video of a crowded place - say, a street in Manhattan, a sporting event, a convention, a rally, a concert, an aerial view of a town - do I need to go up to EVERY person visible in the shot and tell them about what I am doing? NO! Sure, to publish that shot and be paid for it, I need a model release from people who are recognizable in the shot, under certain circumstances. But if I'm not getting paid by publishing an image of you, and if that image does not mis-represent you (e.g. by going along with a claim that, say, you endorse my product), then no, I do not have to tell you about that image shot in a public place. It is NOT wrong for surveillance cameras to be hidden. Heck, one could easily argue that the surveillance cameras that are easily visible are not the most effective ones.

So I don't care if the Google Maps van caught you being late for work, going into a cannabis club, or coming out of a strip club. If you are in a public place, continuously emitting photons and sound waves in every direction that show your position, but you don't want your position and route to be public information, I'm afraid your only reasonable option is to wear a disguise.

We all leave a trail of information wherever we go. In the information age, it is silly and stupid to assume that this trail of information will not be gathered and processed by entities who benefit from organizing information. It is silly and stupid to expect that separate pieces of information about you cannot/should not/will not be combined. To expect this is to believe that computers should not exist. I don't know why some people think that everything they buy is NOT known to the companies they buy from, that their daily route to and from work/class cannot/should not/will not be observed or kept track of by anyone, or that the fact that they drive over the speed limit is not plainly visible by anyone with a doppler-capable device (or a simple stopwatch)

You have zero privacy anyways. Get over it ;)


Blogger kiiki said...

Anything in the public eye is fair game. People complaining about this "invasion of privacy" crap are annoying. Click here to see some amazing new insights the Google Street view has discovered... pretty cool stuff..

12:05 AM  
Blogger Harley said...

This site has a large selection of StreetView finds:

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Ernest Adams said...

Thank you for bringing a much-needed rational (and evidence-based) look at these issues, amid all the paranoia and scare-mongering. As a (very) amateur photographer myself, I don't like this idea that people may insist that no photographs should be taken in public places. If a person doesn't want something that he is doing to be seen, then he should do it in private -- period. The idea that he should be able to force others not to record their own experiences (which may incidentally include him, if both are in a public place) is repressive in the extreme.

To put it simply, don't do things you're not supposed to do where other people can see you, or if you insist, be prepared to take the consequences!

5:16 AM  
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