I like to pretend that I’m somewhat web savvy, and that I can generally guess where links on large websites will take me. This apparently isn’t the case with Blogger – I have a Blogger account to occasionally comment on blogs in the Google blogsphere, but despise the service enough that I don’t use the service. I do, however, have an interest in Google’s newly released Dashboard that is intended to show users what Google knows about them, and how their privacy settings are configured.
Given that I don’t use Blogger much, I was amazed and pleased to see that there was a link to the Dashboard in the upper-right hand corner of a Blogger page that I was reading when I logged in. Was this really the moment where Google made it easy for end-users to identify their privacy settings?
Alas, no. If I were a regular Blogger user I probably would have known better. What I was sent to when I clicked ‘Dashboard’ was my user dashboard for the blogger service itself. This seems to be a branding issue; I had (foolishly!) assumed that various Google environments that serve very different purposes would be labeled differently. In naming multiple things ‘dashboard’ it obfuscates access to a genuinely helpful service that Google is now providing. (I’ll note that a search for ‘Google Dashboard’ also calls up the App Status Dashboard, and that Google Apps also has a ‘Dashboard’ tab!)
The above image was taken by a Google Streetcar. As is evident, all of the faces in the picture have been blurred in accordance with Google’s anonymization policy. I think that the image nicely works as a lightning rod to capture some of the criticisms and questions that have been arisen around Streetview:
- Does the Streetview image-taking process itself, generally, constitute a privacy violation of some sort?
- Are individuals’ privacy secured by just blurring faces?
- Is this woman’s privacy being violated/infringed upon in so way as a result of having her photo taken?
Google’s response is, no doubt, that individuals who feel that an image is inappropriate can contact the company and they will take the image offline. The problem is that this puts the onus on individuals, though we might be willing to affirm that Google recognizes photographic privacy as a social value, insofar as any member of society who sees this as a privacy infringement/violation can also ask Google to remove the image. Still, even in the latter case this ‘outsources’ privacy to the community and is a reactive, rather than a proactive, way to limit privacy invasions (if, in fact, the image above constitutes an ‘invasion’). Regardless of whether we want to see privacy as an individual or social value (or, better, as valuable both for individuals and society) we can perhaps more simply ponder whether blurring the face alone is enough to secure individuals’ privacy. Is anonymization the same as securing privacy?
I think about peer to peer (P2P) filesharing on a reasonably regular basis, for a variety of reasons (digital surveillance, copyright analysis and infringement, legal cases, value in efficiently mobilizing data, etc.). Something that always nags at me is the defense that P2P websites offer when they are sued by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The defense goes something like this:
“We, the torrent website, are just an search engine. We don’t actually host the infringing files, we are just responsible for directing people to them. We’re no more guilty of copyright infringement than Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft are.”
Let’s set aside the fact that Google has been sued for infringing on copyright on the basis that it scrapes information from other websites, and instead turn our attention to the difference between what are termed ‘public’ and ‘private’ trackers. ‘Public’ trackers are available to anyone with a web connection and a torrent program. These sites do not require users to upload a certain amount of data to access the website – they are public, insofar as there are few/no requirements placed on users to access the torrent search engine and associated index. Registration is rarely required. Good examples at thepiratebay.org, and mininova.org. ‘Private’ trackers require users to sign up and log into the website before they can access the search engine and associated index of .torrent files. Moreover, private trackers usually require users to maintain a particular sharing ration – they must upload a certain amount of data that equals or exceeds the amount of data that they download. Failure to maintain the correct share ratio results in users being kicked off the site – they can no longer log into it and access the engine and index.
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. Continue reading