James O'Neill's Blog

April 7, 2009

Google Street View : photography and the breakdown of common sense.

Filed under: General musings — jamesone111 @ 8:55 pm

Working for Microsoft, and holding views on privacy which border on paranoia, you might expect me to to be doing a gleeful little dance at the news that Privacy International have lodged a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner about Google’s Street view, and the villagers of Broughton sent the Street View car packing. If you know that I’m a photographer you might guess that things are not quite so simple.

Laws vary in different parts of the world, but in the UK the law gives almost no protection for the people in a picture. For example a wedding photographer owns the copyright in the pictures they were paid to shoot, and until the 1980s had complete freedom to re-use those photos for advertising.  Human rights law covers the “expectation of privacy” – you don’t have an expectation of privacy if someone in the street can see you, even if you are in your own home (it’s different if you can only be seen with binoculars, or by standing on a ladder – part of the Broughton issue was the height of the Google camera meant it could see over a high wall which otherwise gave privacy to one of the objectors). There is no law which prevents the taking of photographs – however anyone who allows you entry to private property can make a “no photography” a condition. The upshot is you can take and publish photograph of something which anyone could have seen – whether the person in the photo likes it or not.

In recent years the freedom for photographers to do this has taken knocks from many directions.  When I was 10 years old there was an old gentleman who photographed the swimmers in the club I belonged to. He had the approval of the club, and we saw and liked the pictures he made: I’ve no idea what motivated him but today he’d be branded a paedophile. Photographing your own children in a public park where there are other children is risky. “Child protection” is used as a reason to keep cameras out of school plays and sports days. There’s no logic to it: you don’t have to protect children from a stranger who doesn’t interact with them. Yet people can’t photograph children enjoying themselves in public in case the photographer has something in common cause with people who make pictures of children being abused behind closed doors. A minor freedom has gone because we don’t feel able to challenge illogical limits imposed in the name of “protecting children” , “saving the environment”  or  “preventing terrorism” –  anyone who spends time on photography discussion forums will have seen accounts of photographers being harassed for taking photographs of this or that building because they might be a terrorist on a reconnaissance mission.

Google has less fear of being attacked than the casual photographer – writing in the Observer Henry Porter dubbed Google one of the internets WWMs “worldwide monopolies that sweep all before them with exuberant contempt for people’s rights, their property and the past”. OK so Google might be rude, (Porter also says he “detects in Google something that is delinquent and sociopathic, perhaps the character of a nightmarish 11-year-old” on Twitter Rory Cellan Jones  observed that Google is getting the kind of abuse which used to be reserved for Microsoft) , but Street view only exercises the rights any photographer has; though there are two crucial differences: scale and “indexabilty” I can find you only if I know where to look. A picture of you in the street outside your house doesn’t show much – I need to know what you look like to know it is you in the picture, and I need to know where you live, if I know that what do I learn from the picture ? If the cameras caught you doing something noteworthy it probably isn’t where I can find it, and someone who chances upon it probably doesn’t you. Something which might have been glimpsed by a few becomes an incidental part of a picture with a long life; but the chances of Google’s camera cars seeing something you feel is private are smaller than being seen by someone you know.

On the other hand there are thousands of CCTV cameras recording us every day; while not exactly furtive, these cameras don’t draw attention to themselves, they don’t show you what they have captured (which is their objective, for Street View it is a by-product). It is said that “the average Briton is caught on CCTV 300 times a day” , and David Aaronovich embarked on a quest for the source of this figure, and found it dates from 1999 (when the number of cameras was lower than it is today) and it was not an average, but a study which said someone could be recorded by 30 different systems using multiple cameras (giving a total of 300) provided that they took a somewhat contrived journey. (Over at the Guardian Paul Lewis argues that if CCTV is ubiquitous, it doesn’t matter if you appear on 30, 300 or 3000 cameras). CCTV is is kept from us – a colleague was assaulted by a member of staff on Reading station after attempting to record the man being obstructive to customers, but the CCTV evidence wasn’t available to him. We accept CCTV cameras watching parks and open spaces without any idea if the people who watch it or voyeuristic perverts or conscientious public servants, we have no idea how long it is kept or what used it is put to. With the government wanting to gather facial recognition data as part of their ID cards scheme do we want to see the systems linked so our whereabouts logged as we go about our lawful business ? That’s not a society I want to live in,

And yet that is exactly the society we do live in. I saw a quote recently “I don’t know what is going on with the UK, it’s like they’re using 1984 as an installation guide”. The information commissioner talked about our sleepwalking into a surveillance society for years and eventually concluded that we have. The Information Commissioner is a government official – I like to think of him as the governments conscience – and his office deals with issues like warning teenagers not to provide “Way too much information”, and telling organizations not to use the Data Protection Act to evade their responsibilities to supply information. Difficult to cast him as a paranoid crackpot then. Ditto the Joseph Rowntree reform trust – founded by the Quaker philanthropist and confectioner which came out with a report entitled “Database state”. It looked at 46 state databases and found 40 of them wanting, and said a quarter of them were probably illegal (Including the national DNA database , the National Identity Register, the ContactPoint system which tracks every child in the country , and the OnSet tool which predicts which children will be criminals rather than victims or witnesses.). It also called out the high rate of failure of government IT projects, described the benefits of data-sharing as illusory, and criticized the tendency to draw data to the centre.  Reports are called “damning” far too often, but this one deserves the tag.

According to the Rowntree report, Automated Number Plate Recogniton cameras make 50 Million identifications a day covering 10 Million drivers, with the data being stored for 5 years. We have no idea who will use it, or how, a survey of local councils showed they had little respect for privacy, and every day we seem to get a new story of the government mismanaging our information. As the report puts it “This is a clear case of technology push; in the absence of evidence that the resulting privacy intrusion brings real crime-reduction gains, we have to rate ANPR as Privacy impact: amber.”  That term technology push is a good one, no government would order everybody’s letters to be read by the post office – it’s just not practical, but scanning all e-mails is something which technology allows, so it’s claimed as useful in the fight against terror. That’s Technology Push. Technologies like ANPR can be helpful, I can’t fill my car with fuel until it has been scanned by ANPR, yet when I come to pay with my fuel card the car’s number must be entered manually: it’s a good reminder that the technology isn’t for my benefit. ANPR doesn’t allow the UK government to see where you are every moment, but they are trying to revive the idea of GPS spy boxes in every car, not raising taxes or tracking people (no, no heaven forbid) this time in the cause of safety and the environment. The rate of road fatalities has stopped falling while the number of speed cameras has rocketed, so it seems we are to have a full time observer making us keep to speed limits. And the effective way to be green is to increase the cost of fuel, so even drivers of efficient cars think about driving less – or not being so heavy with their right foot; but price rises hit everyone which means politicians dislike the policy: instead the UK government opts to increase annual taxes on more polluting cars which doesn’t make them drive less.

Sometimes it seems we choose to ignore the surveillance apparatus which surrounds us.  If we pay attention to it for a moment, Street view is very small beer indeed. In the same way I rate it as one of the smaller issues for which one can criticize Google. I don’t subscribe to Henry Porter’s view “Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues …” one could make similar criticisms of banks, but we’ve discovered what happens when they stop working properly. No, the internet is  better for search engines, and if Google build a big business by being the default choice for lots of people I see nothing wrong with that – of course working for Microsoft I wouldn’t – BUT for a long time Microsoft didn’t get that with size comes responsibility, and I think that is a lesson Google still have to learn, especially in their attitude to privacy and their pursuit of information about you for behavioural targeting of adverts. But this piece is long enough already so I’ll leave talk of that for another time.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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