Sunday 27 Jul 2008
Just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it. That’s the lesson Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein meant to teach readers, and it’s a concept human beings seem doomed to grapple with in light of should-never-have-done-this inventions like the atom bomb, genetically modified foods or aerosol. Google, with their love of interesting technology, held a meeting at some point in the past couple of years in which they made the classic human choice – we can do it, so let’s! And that’s how the world ended up with Street View which has almost immediately drawn criticism for all sides for being a brash invasion of citizen privacy.
Some time last year, Google sent their camera-mounted cars through Sonoma County, California – a region made up of 3 small cities and a smattering of little, quiet towns. Google then compiled all of the images they captured into their relatively new Maps application, Street View.
To see Street View yourself, go to Google Maps and type in an address. If the Google camera cars have been on the streets in your part of the world, you will see the option to select ‘Street View’ within the map. All streets which have been recorded are then outlined in blue on the map, and by clicking on the location of your choice, you’ll be shown an interactive image like this:
You’ll note that I’ve chosen a California shopping center for the above example, and I made that choice selectively because I believe that Google’s intentional documentation of private property isn’t just invasive snooping, it’s actually in violation of the California Constitution, Article I, Section I which states:
All people are by nature free and independent and have
inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and
liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing
and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.
*Emphasis is mine
I’m not alone in my icky feelings about what Google has done. When Sonoma County’s local newspaper got wind of Google putting their region on the map in a way that isn’t just showing aerial views of the lay of the land but is, in fact, showing 360 degree views of private homes, house interiors through windows and private individuals, they printed quite a good article on the topic. They spoke with Google spokesperson, Elaine Filadelfo, who declared,
“It is our policy to only gather photos on public roads. We’ll certainly take down images taken on private property.”
Google’s camera car drivers clearly aren’t aware of Google’s policy, as the article details:
Google went past a gate with a “no trespassing” sign and captured images on private property. Several residences can be seen on the property, including an up-close shot of someone’s living room window.
I’m afraid Google’s offer to take down photos of private property isn’t cutting it for me for 2 reasons:
1) With the exception of public lands, all property is private. Unless you live in a historic landmark, if you noticed someone snooping around your property with a camera, taking up-close photos of your doors and windows, the layout of your yard’s entrances and exits, and the interior of your home as seen through your windows, you’d call the police and the trespasser would likely be incarcerated. Google’s offer to take down images of private property would basically defeat the purpose of their own application – they’d have to remove every privately-owned home from Street View and what would be left?
2) Even if an offended party were to get Google to take down an image, they have no control over what may have been done with the image during the time it was live in Maps. The image could have been copied and published on dozens of other websites by the time it’s taken down.
It’s also not going to ‘do it for me’ to say that it wouldn’t be illegal if you were walking down the street with a friend and took a photo of them that happened to have someone’s private property in the background. Google’s intent here isn’t vague or accidental. They clearly mean to make a photographic document of every home in America, and powerful cameras are enabling them to do so in lifelike detail, without any permission from cities, towns or property owners. As the newspaper example shows, Google is not even respecting No Trespassing signs in their quest to index the world.
My searches using Street View and Maps in general also show me that, in addition to casing private homes, Google has photographed government buildings, military structures and prisons. I can’t help wondering what the government thinks of that.
What Does It Mean To Be A Private Citizen Who Owns Private Property?
I’ve cited the California Constitution above because it was the first thing that came to my mind when I learned that Street View captures not only detailed views of private property, but also of human beings, including children. In my state, this article and section of the constitution have been used repeatedly in countless cases to defend citizens’ inalienable rights to be private and safe in their homes.
The major objections I’ve encountered so far to Street View include that it will enable burglars and other nefarious individuals to plan crimes against property and people in a way that was never imagined before. It only takes a little bit of thinking to see that a person with evil intentions could benefit hugely from a tool that not only shows them where all your home’s entrances and fuse boxes are, but may also show them who lives in your house. Elderly people, children, handicapped citizens? Why would Google put data like this into criminal hands?
I’ll answer my own question by suggesting that, like so many inventors, Google is so caught up in the amazing possibilities of burgeoning technology that their view is dangerously insular. Remember: just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should do it? Google is caught up in the ‘can’ and only lawsuits will teach them to start thinking about the repercussions of ‘should’.
If one child is kidnapped, if one house is robbed, if one battered woman’s whereabouts are discovered by her abuser because of Google’s Street View, has our society gone so tech-crazy that we’ll still call this tool a benefit to man? I leave the answer to that up to you, but hope it won’t be the tried-and-true ‘guns don’t kill people’ argument. I need to believe that we’ve evolved beyond rhetoric like that. We know very well that our society isn’t made up entirely of good people. We know that there are criminals amongst us and that the responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable members of our society is really ours.
Google’s technology is forcing Californians to confront what it really means to be a private citizen and to own private property. I expect to see this fought out in court, repeatedly.
Things That Might Be Great To Know
If you’re planning to move house, it might be great to know how much money everyone in a given neighborhood makes so you can determine whether or not you’ll be able to afford to live there.
If you’re an employer, it might save you money to know whether or not a prospective employee has had a serious illness like cancer or MS.
If you’re a politician, it could help your campaign if you could hear what your constituents are really saying about you when they talk on the phone.
Does Google, or any other entity, have the right to give you this information about other people, even if it could be construed as a benefit to you? I say, no. And I’m saying no as a Local Search practitioner, who thinks Google Maps is cool, who empathizes with the oohs and aahs that must radiate from the Googleplex every time some new technology is invented there. I absolutely recognize that Street View could be very helpful in finding your way around a town, but I’m not willing to give up my cherished personal privacy for the sake of a gadget.
In my book, Street View has crossed a line, and I would support laws that uphold my state’s constitution in the matters of privacy and consent. In closing, I’d like to point out that when my friends and colleagues have visited the Googleplex, they have only been allowed to take photographs in designated areas. Many regions of the Plex are strictly off limits – in other words, private. So, Google should be able to understand the objections flooding in since the launch of Street View. “That’s my business,” is a statement all Americans should understand and protect, and if Google won’t recognize this, I would suggest that they are undermining their own future privacy in an increasingly invasive world.