What is it about Europeans that makes them so susceptible to populist arguments in favor of expectations of privacy in a public space? Sure, Google does not have the legal right to drive on private roads and photograph from there, as it appears to have done on two documented occasions in the US. That is a clear-cut case. In Europe, however, Street View is getting a steady onslaught of negative publicity, mainly instigated by populist newspapers, about the evils of taking photography in a public place and publishing it.
British tabloids are the worst offenders when it comes to tendentious reporting. For example, This is London‘s article is titled “Big Brother: The Google cars that will photograph EVERY front door in Britain“, and contains the ridiculous
Critics say the site can be used by burglars planning escape routes from homes and by terrorists looking for military bases. The site has even been used by teenagers arranging unauthorised swimming parties in unoccupied homes.
I love the “even”, as if terrorism is bad enough, but unauthorised swimming parties are beyond the pale.
The Liverpool Daily Post titled its article “Google Street View comes to Liverpool amid privacy fears” though without finding any civilians expressing said fears. The Mail on Sunday, today: Google ‘burglar’s charter’ street cameras given the all clear by privacy watchdog The BBC has a proper neutral take: Google Street View gets go ahead.
(None of the tabloids, of course, have picked up on the irony that their paparazzi constantly flout the privacy of their “marks” out in the public space, pictures of which they then sell to an eager readership now being urged to defend its right to privacy.)
German media too is hunting for privacy officials that are complaining, even if, as Bloomberg reports, “federal and state data-protection agents have yet to find a legal basis to hinder filming that’s carried out by cameras mounted on vehicles.”
“From a privacy viewpoint, we don’t welcome this activity,” Federal Commission spokesman Dietmar Mueller said in an interview today. “Yet we have no legal instance to challenge it — anyone can walk along a street with a camera.”
What a strange concept: Government officials complaining that a company is observing the law, but that they don’t like it anyway.
The right to privacy of an individual is not a absolute right — as by necessity it constrains the freedom of other individuals to document and record their surroundings. As a sometime photographer and journalist myself, I believe there should not be any expectations of privacy in public places (as opposed to private spaces and inside homes, though not in front of windows visible from public spaces). If you’re going to Disney World on a sick day or to a sleazy club instead of bowling, and I or Google accidentally take a snapshot of you and post it to Flickr or Street View, then that should be the end of it. The truth is out there — why smudge it?