Google Street View

This week, Google Street View was rolled out for a bunch of major Canadian cities. Previously only available to our neighbors to the south and select other European locations, most people seem happy to have access to the service. But all is not well in the realm of the Internet. New technology often comes bundled with new phobias and fears, and Street View is no exception.

Overall, the lack of negative press Google has received for their Canadian deployment of Street View was a bit surprising, given past criticisms. The media’s positive portrayal notwithstanding, one need only peruse the comments sections of any of the articles to see the fear and paranoia of technological change alive and well in the minds of Canadians. For example, take some of the comments to this (generally positive) Vancouver Sun article:

“There is a good reason that Google was forced to significantly obscure its satellite photos. Just think stalker, or gang member, or chld (sic) abductor, or burglar, or (etc., etc.).”

“I love the new technology! I also hope that the province installs more cameras at skytrain stations, the downtown core, public parks, gyms, libraries, community centers, parkades, hotel lobbies, bars, the workplace ( Check out all the cameras at the Jericho Tennis Club! ), peoples (sic) backyards etc…..”

Or in response to the fact that one of the pictures was of a young girl out front of an elementary school:

“Do none of you grasp the fact that there was a little girl shown in front of her elementary school? This is a HUGE concern! What’s to stop some pervert from seeing her, becoming fixated, then tracking her down and taking her? Nothing, that’s what. If that were my child I would be ENRAGED that her safety is being compromised by this technology.”

While these views aren’t necessarily typical of the populace writ large, they do show a disturbing and an (anecdotally, at least) common trend in the way people think about new technology in the information age. The truth is that Google isn’t doing anything particularly groundbreaking technologically; rather, it’s the way in which they are doing it that makes it special. Google is merely aggregating and making available what was previously already publicly accessible. While it might be valid to criticize Google for problems created by the aggregation of this information (especially when that information is owned by a single source), it’s a bit silly to pretend that if only those pictures didn’t exist, pedophiles wouldn’t stalk children, and burglars would stop casing homes. Not to mention that all of this information (and much more) is already publicly available through photo aggregation and sharing services like Picasa, Flickr, Panoramio, Facebook, Myspace etc. — and nobody seems to care about those.

However, there is another problem with the above reasoning. Unlike surveillance cameras, Street View is not a surveillance tool — it is neither meant to act as one, nor is it a particularly good one. Any “stalkerish” purposes towards which it can be put to use are accidental to the purpose of the project, as opposed to the intended consequence, and that makes a huge difference. Despite imperfections in Google’s face-blurring technology, they are trying their best to ensure that privacy concerns are met. Everything that Google has done to date is consistent with the idea that they believe they’re providing a useful (and in demand) service. Most people seem content to overlook the fact that Google has a very good record with protecting their users’ privacy[1]. They take the job of guarding user data quite seriously, and they’ve always been very up-front about what they’re doing to your information and where they are mining their data. This might be a controversial statement, but I believe that Google is genuinely interested in protecting peoples’ privacy. This undoubtedly stems from the fact that their entire business model relies on people trusting them with their personal data, which, if anything, only strengthens my conviction that Google is doing their best to protect everybody’s privacy.

So does Google Street View spell the end to privacy? I don’t think so, and while I’m glad that there are people watching out for my privacy, I wish that they’d take a more level-headed approach in their criticism. Big Brother isn’t watching you just yet — only the front of your house and your lawn… but is that really such a terrible thing?

[1] Obviously, the massive amounts of information we aggregate and share on the Internet means that the definition of “privacy” is changing rapidly, and “classical privacy” in the sense that we usually envision (arguably) no longer exists. I am instead referring to Google’s record for maintaining privacy, relative to other similar companies in the information industry.

Comments are closed.

  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.