There were a couple of stories over the weekend and today about the capture on Google StreetView of images of a naked toddler. Here’s the original UK newspaper report:
The Independent on Sunday alerted the internet search giant after finding the image of the toddler, playing at a family summer picnic in a garden square in north London, captured permanently on the revolutionary mapping system. Britain’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, is considering an investigation into Google if more images of naked children are found to have been picked up by its cameras and made available to internet users.
The article is fairly inflammatory, as the paragraph above suggests. The idea is that Google is somehow aiding would-be child abductors. Further down in the article a more explicit connection between StreetView and crime is made:
The company’s discomfort was compounded by a former criminal, Michael Fraser, who wrote in The Sun yesterday that Street View was a “gift to criminals”.
Germans in the country’s northern state of Schleswig-Holstein are threatening to take legal action against Google because of fears that its photographs of the region’s towns and streets are in breach of the country’s strict privacy laws.
A campaign against the internet giant has been launched from the small provincial town of Molfsee, near Kiel, and is being eagerly watched by dozens of other towns and cities in the region which has a population of close to 3 million.
“We are not going to let this happen,” said Reinhold Harwart, Molfsee’s conservative mayor. “This is opening people’s houses and homes to criminals. All this information is taken back to the United States and being processed. This can’t be allowed,” he told the IoS.
Google responds to the article on its EU public policy blog:
The photographs in this case were not revealing. They showed a typical family picnic in a public park on a summer’s day, with children playing. It’s important to note that none of the images in Street View are live, they were taken last year. The child in question was some distance from the camera and could only be made out properly at the highest zoom level, meaning that the image already appeared blurred due to the low resolution. He or she was not facing the camera, so could not be identified. And where other people’s faces appeared in the image our automatic blurring tool had worked well, to make sure that none of the faces could be identified.
Nevertheless, we take issues around inappropriate content in our products very seriously, and we removed the images within an hour of being notified.
These kinds of accusations have been leveled against Google and StreetView in the past and will continue to be in the future. The back and forth between Google and its critics is similar and familiar at this point. The specific issues around identifying individuals or removing particular images can be readily addressed through consultations, technology and editorial policy. While Google can probably do more proactively to prevent “naked child” incidents (and their like), in most respects the framework already exists for the resolution of the issues raised in the article.
The deeper issue being revealed and expressed is a growing sense of anxiety about all this technology and how it’s changing the world we live in. Google and StreetView are symbols of that change and the potential loss of control it represents.
Step back and consider that of the 3 billion-plus mobile phones in the world a large percentage have cameras, increasing numbers of which also shoot video. Some of those images and video wind up online often without the permission of the subjects (consider Facebook’s “you’ve been tagged in a photo” message that typically appears without advanced notification). There are also cameras increasingly mounted in public places in a growing number of cities, ostensibly for crime-prevention purposes. They’re all over New York City for example (I’m less sure about Europe). People seem to be less up-in-arms about these developments, perhaps because they’re not as dramatic or “visible.” There’s also the less well understood and gradual erosion of privacy justified as part of law enforcement and “search and seizure” law (US Constitutional Fourth Amendment).
In the German mayor’s comments from the Independent article, excerpted above, there’s the added concern that a US-based company is behind StreetView. Would he be less concerned if it were a German or European company? The implied objection is to StreetView and Google as agents of US global interests or the further exertion of US corporate domination.
I’m not trying to belittle privacy concerns in any way. Privacy should be debated vigorously. And hopefully public discussion of these issues will lead to policies that safeguard privacy in a new era of ubiquitous cameras. But the privacy debate should be more encompassing and not so focused on a single company.
It should also recognize that, like it or not, the cameras are here to stay.