Google's Race to the Bottom
A new report claims Google has an entrenched hostility to privacy. Does the search giant need a Chief Privacy Officer?
To achieve this effect, Google hired a van full of cameras to drive around several U.S. cities and take pictures of nearly every streetscape.
While we may not know exactly which day each picture was taken, for some number of unlucky individuals who found themselves captured in the photo sweep, the day of the photo shoot will hereafter be known as the day Google caught me picking my nose or scratching their butt, or breaking-and-entering, or urinating on a roadside, to name just a few of the activities captured.
Quite coincidentally, at almost the very same moment that residents and visitors to those three cities scanned the images looking to see if Google had captured their previously ephemeral moments of private shame, a privacy watchdog organization in the United Kingdom was preparing to issue a report claiming Google has an entrenched hostility to privacy and is winning the race to the bottom on privacy.
The report also noted that the company's privacy policies are often vague and "possibly deceptive," and that Google has a poor track record of responding to privacy concerns or seeking the input of privacy experts before introducing services.
Naturally, Google responded with outrage, with one of the companys lawyers claiming that Privacy Internationals report was based on numerous inaccuracies and misunderstandings about Googles services.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the Google PR department, the company was denying that the new Street View service raised any privacy issues!
Yes, from a general legal perspective, photographs taken on a public street may not violate any established privacy protections under statute or common law. But the technical legal question is irrelevant to the larger issue: when someone can look on Google and see themselves drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks, they tend to get freaked out.
This apparent failure to take into consideration the privacy expectations of end-users is systemic, according to Privacy International. "Techniques and technologies (are) frequently rolled out without adequate public consultation (e.g. Street level view), the report said.
Not true, a Google spokesperson replied, We tried to balance offering a strong, useful product for users with the privacy implications of it."
Yet, how they attempted to achieve that balance is unclear.
For example, the Street View service requires a complex set of algorithms to stitch together the multiple photographs. It also appears that the system adjusts images to compensate for different angles, the glare of the sun, and other challenges.
But if Google used any sophisticated technologies to enhance the privacy of those people captured in the images -- such as using facial recognition to automatically blur faces of people on the street -- theyre being very quiet about it.