Crikey: Oh no, Google took a photo of my house!

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[This article was first published in Crikey yesterday.]

This morning Australians woke to the news that Google’s Street View has taken photos of their street, their office, their school — their home! — and published them for all to see. Doubtless we’ll now see a flood of stories screeching “Invasion of privacy!” Hardly.

A picture taken on a public street isn’t “private”. A house is a visible, physical object that anyone can walk past and photograph. Its address is a known fact. Anyone can post pictures online with a description. Real estate agents do it all the time. All Google has done is photographed “everywhere” all at once, and given us the results.

Worried that knowledge of who lives in your house will become public? That data is already available — in the phone book, in most cases, or the electoral roll. If you’ve done any renovations recently, there’s probably even a floor plan of your house on your local council’s website.

Besides, when you use Street View, chances are the very first thing you’ll look up is your own home. Knowing this, Google can simply cross-match that with everything they already know about you: every Google search you’ve done, every link you’ve followed, every YouTube video you’ve watched — and, if a website uses the “free” Google Analytics or runs Google AdSense advertising, Google also knows about every such website you’ve ever visited. Congratulations, you just let them write your address across the top of their dossier!

And isn’t Google owned by the CIA anyway? Beware The Googling… ! [Insert maniacal laugh here.]

Back here in the real world, discussions about privacy need to move beyond being scared of information being collected. We probably lost that kind of privacy years ago, and certainly on the day we connected our computers to the Internet.

Instead, as I’ve written elsewhere, we’ll have to come to terms with the fact that everyone has skeletons in the cupboard and we should worry about how that information is interpreted.

Lots of people have smoked a joint. One in seven men listed on birth certificates isn’t actually the father; routine DNA screening is uncovering uncomfortable bedroom secrets.

As computer forensics researcher Simson Garfinkel said in his book Database Nation, we need to rethink what privacy really means.

It’s not about people speeding on the nation’s highways who get automatically generated tickets mailed to them thanks to a computerised speed trap. It’s about lovers who will take less joy in walking around city streets or visiting stores because they know they’re being photographed by surveillance cameras everywhere they step.

It’s not about the special prosecutors who leave no stone unturned in their search for corruption of political misdeeds. It’s about the good, upstanding citizens who are now refusing to enter public service because they don’t want a bloodthirsty press rummaging through their old school reports, computerised medical records and email.

Hopefully in Australia there’ll be fewer embarrassing Street View photos thanks to Google’s face-blurring technology.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t we start using these tools for our own benefit, not just for “Them” in corporations and (when they eventually catch up) government?

4 Replies to “Crikey: Oh no, Google took a photo of my house!”

  1. The concern is more about how easy it makes “the wrong people” access such information. Sure, public streets are not strictly private per se but Street View makes it very simple for those wrong people to cause “problems”.

    This is a new service. It will spark controversy etc for a little while until people get used to it. Just like any new technology.

  2. attack of the mysterious wrong people. Of course previously these wrong people had to rely on other methods like using the white pages…

    at my work everyone was delighted. people were going in there and trying to work out when the photos were taken. One man said, that there was a photo of a company’s van outside his house which shows it was taken on the one day that company was doing work in his house.

  3. Hmmm… I am way behind in responding to comments…

    @bojan: I’m glad you put “the wrong people” and “problems” in quotes like that. What intrigues me is that people seem to react to invented fears rather than any sensible analysis of potential risks.

    One aspect of the reaction to Street View which intrigues me is the fear that some unknown person could be looking at your house without you seeing them. This was possible well before Street View, of course. We’ve had compact 35mm cameras for a nearly a century. Anyone could quickly take a photo and then peruse it at their leisure.

    People who say that they’d notice a “suspicious person” taking pictures miss three points:

    1. They imagine they know what a “suspicious person” would look like, i.e. the stereotyped criminal or Person of Middle-Eastern Appearance.
    2. They don’t think about the ease with which photos can be taken. They think someone would be “hanging around” drawing attention to themselves, when of course they could walk past and take a quick snap — or even drive past with a video camera.
    3. The Street View pictures are taken with a really obvious camera mount on car. Did they notice those pictures being taken? No. So what makes them think they’d notice someone who was trying to be discrete?

    @yewenyi: Yes, there are mysterious bogeymen everywhere…

    You mention the White Pages, but that’s about matching a human to the anonymous house in the street. Google Street View is unlabelled pictures of buildings etc, so as far as identifying anybody it makes no difference.

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