Pro-privacy initiatives are getting out of hand – Or Are They?

Don Reisinger’s posting on Pro-privacy initiatives are getting out of hand is a good read, even if I don’t think that he ‘gets’ the reason why privacy advocates are (should be?) concerned about Google Streetview. If you’ve been under a rock, Google is in the process of sending out cars (like the one at the top of this post) to photograph neighborhoods and cities. The aim? To let people actually see where they are going – get directions, and you can see the streets and the buildings that you’ll be passing by. It also lets you evaluate how ‘safe’ a neighborhood is (ignoring the social biases that will be involved in any such estimation) and has been talked about as a privacy violation because some people have been caught on camera doing things that they didn’t want to be caught doing.

Don: Privacy Wimps Stand Up, Sit Down, and Shut Up

Don’s general position is this: American law doesn’t protect your privacy in such a way that no one can get one or take a photo of your property. What’s more, even if you were doing something that you didn’t want to be seen in you home, and if that action was captured by a Google car, don’t worry – no one really cares about you. In the new digital era, privacy by obscurity relies on poor search, poor image recognition, and even less interest in what you’re doing. Effectively, Streetview will be used to watching streets, and little else.

Fair Enough

Don’s got a really, really good point, and his article is good because it identifies many of the contemporary concerns (i.e. that you and your home are being photographed) and points out that those concerns are (really) fairly trivial. I say this as someone who has issues with a lot of Google’s services *grin*.
What Don doesn’t get – and to be fair the issue I want to focus on hasn’t really gotten to courts in the US as far as I can tell – is that this is another artifact that is now online. Do I care if my home is captured by Streetview? No, not really, unless that image is correlated with my postal code, my address, where I work, my phone number, my criminal record, etc. In essence, my real concern about Streetview is that is provides another data source for mash-ups, or services that compile data profiles from a large number of sources. What’s more, as search improves we move towards a point where these artifacts are more easily collected, giving a very detailed accounting of who I am, what I do, and where I do it. As someone who does value my privacy, that’s unnerving, especially when there is not real way for me to identify what information of mine exists online without some intense personal investigative efforts.

Mash-ups – Badness?

Mash-ups aren’t necessarily bad – I need to state that right away – but neither are they necessarily good. In the past, people enjoyed security and privacy by obscurity; there were so many data sources and it was so costly to collect full profiles on people that it wasn’t done very often. Nowadays, however, it is much cheaper, and much easier, to aggregate people’s information. Once aggregated, that information can be used in an almost infinite number of ways – ways that the individual who generated that information/has that data tied to doesn’t necessarily consent to. Consent, as always, is meant as an ‘opt-in’ consent, rather than an opt-out form of consent.
This collection and reorganization of data into a new, useful, format is what is commonly referred to when people talk about mash-ups.
Consent is Dumb Though!

Yeah yeah, we hear this all the time. Opt-in consent is onerous, whereas opt-out is sufficient. I think that this is absolutely correct – read it again, I agreed with that past sentence – for Silicon valley companies who are creating products to solve problems that don’t really exist (had you going for a second, eh?). Let me put it another way: what ‘problem’ do many of the social networking technologies and Web 2.0 technologies solve? Were these genuinely problems, or were problems found after the technology was deployed?

If the technology/mashup is a clearly useful or desirable product then companies shouldn’t worry about opt-in requirements. Only when there is a strong possibility that the technology isn’t actually useful to the consumer/the consumer isn’t made fully aware of the benefits of the technology will opt-in be disdained.

Back to Streetview

Does Google’s Streetview meet the various privacy rights in the sundry jurisdictions that it’s deployed in? That’s a good question, and one that civil rights advocates with lawyers should (and are) look into. That said, any time where Streetview, or any other ‘primary’ data source is found to be acceptable to national privacy laws, the subsequent mash-ups need to be examined and evaluated.

Something that I do read every now and again in the education blogs that I read is that teaching students about the value of mash-ups is important, and I agree. That said, included in that education should be a critical evaluation of the benefits and harms that might follow from mash-ups. Any such evaluation would be greatly helped were federal and state/provincial government to start to proactively think about the issues posed by mash-ups and begin to develop regulations intended to minimize their possible privacy harms, while enhancing their positive benefits.