[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!
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.
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?