Streetview - the Public Fight Back

Google has launched its Street View service in the UK to inevitable howls of protest about the privacy implications. Is it really such a big deal? And might customisation offer a compromise for all concerned?

Google’s Street View service has gone live in the UK. Currently covering cities and larger towns, Google’s black Opel cars are touring the country filling in the blanks as they go. Google’s systems then stitch together the images to build a complete picture of the street that can be viewed from their website. The servers also pixelate out any identifiable faces and vehicle registrations.

Google argues that since all pictures are taken in public places, that they make efforts to remove personally identifiable information, and that they will take down images where asked to do so, there is no privacy issue here. Privacy advocates argue otherwise. Privacy International has submitted a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner calling for the service to be shut down. Their complaint argues that Street View breaches the Data Protection Act since it causes embarrassment and distress to individuals who remain identifiable despite the pixelation (or in those cases where the systems have failed to pixelate properly). They also argue that Street View is a threat to vulnerable individuals such as victims of domestic violence attempting to escape abusive partners, citing a woman who was identifiable on a Street View image.

The ICO appears to be maintaining a low-key approach to the issue. It does seem inconceivable that a corporation the size of Google would be stopped from running the service, but that hasn’t prevented accusations of foul play in their response to the complaint: Simon Davies, the powerhouse behind Privacy International, has claimed that Google have briefed the media against him and have tried to imply that Microsoft are using his work to battle Google. Davies and Microsoft’s Jerry Fishenden have reacted angrily to this, refuting the claims – Davies points out that he has never been paid by Microsoft, and whilst there is a commercial relationship with Fishenden, privacy advocates have a right to earn money just like the rest of us.*

There have inevitably been examples of humour and hypocrisy in this debate: folks caught on camera in various states of inebriation, squadrons of UFOs, and the occasional bodily function. Hypocrisy is more worrying: Google’s own UK boss has allegedly had his own home removed from the images, which somewhat undermines his own ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ approach.

Perhaps the most interesting development was that of the villagers of Broughton, near Milton Keynes, who blocked a Googlemobile as it passed through the village. They claim that the car wasn’t just passing through, but was in fact entering driveways to fill in the blanks of private land. It might be argued that this is middle class angst in action, but it’s an important issue: there will be huge tracts of land that Google’s cars won’t be permitted to enter, and one wonders at what point they’ll be minded to try to do so.

There are some critical civil liberty issues at stake here. The right to privacy has to be balanced against the right to transparency: if we demand not to be photographed in a public place, then the government may insist that we are no longer permitted to photograph police officers, public buildings, airports or other infrastructure sites. Conversely, there has to be a line in the sand somewhere, and Street View has, by placing so much imagery in the hands of the public, catalysed that debate.

So here’s a suggestion: why don’t we call for Google to allow members of the public to upload their own images in place of those in Street View? I’d happily have my house in there, but with the curtains closed and no vehicles in the driveway. Or I could even photoshop it first to improve its appearance, or swap it with another building altogether. We could create our own fantasy of Britain without having to enter Second Life, and have a far more enjoyable and privacy-friendly Street View than we have now. It’s just a thought.

* [On a personal note, I know and respect them both, and believe them to be dedicated professionals of impeccable integrity. If they claim they’ve been smeared then I believe them]