Street View and privacy – what’s up with the Europeans?

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?

20 thoughts on “Street View and privacy – what’s up with the Europeans?”

  1. The UK supposedly has more CCTV cameras than any other country, and yet people freak out about Streetview.

    Having seen the Google car drive down my road, personally I can’t wait for Streetview to go live over England!!

  2. To put a very snobbish perspective on this:

    Tabloids sell more papers with *shocking* stories even if they are wide of the mark, and this ‘informs’ and enrages the masses.

    This is all :/

  3. Have you considered the possibility that Europeans have different cultural sensibilities/moores regarding privacy and that you look like an arrogant snot for posting this anti privacy rant? Why does Google insist on berating people over their concerns?

  4. Argonaut- First, Stefan is not affiliated with Google. Weird you would think he is.

    I think Stefan (who happens to be plenty European) gave a very compelling argument that this has little to do with real privacy concerns and more to do with breathless fear-mongering to sell papers. Not sure how such a debate is arrogant.

    I won’t comment on European privacy ‘moores’ generally, but I do know that the average Londoner is filmed hundreds of times when they leave their house by private companies and their own government. You can’t go anywhere on London without being filmed. Where is the outrage? This suggests Londoners are not so concerned after all with privacy in public places, even less than in the U.S.

    Hardly a convincing backdrop for paranoia about a single photo of the front of your house taken from a public street.

    You really want privacy? Buy some damn curtains, or move to the country. Blaming Google for destroying your already non-existent privacy in a city like London is just stupid.

  5. Google’s very bad PR is part of the problem. They do not respond to press or public enquiries, nor do they explain why they are investing in Street View or what their business model is. People do not know why Google is photographing their private property, which is not “public space” in any European country. Doubt raises worries.

    The new SV coverage of France has some nice images, but frankly most streets in Europe are just as boring as those in the US, so interest will probably soon wane.

  6. the thief thinks that everyone is a thief.

    the government of UK is promoting this fight against street view because they do the same. they are concerned about the possibilities of bad usage of this capability because they have done it themselves. they know they have trespassed people’s privacy beyond the limits and don’t want anyone to trespass it more than they do. they want to be number one on that.

  7. In Sonoma County, north of the Bay Area in California, the newspaper has been carrying stories about Street View’s latest imagery. They state that the north Bay Area has the most rural SV imagery of any place SV has been. They also are highlighting complaints of people saying Google has driven onto private roads to take images.

    It seems that the same concerns voiced in Europe are being voiced here, but so far with much less hyperbole.

  8. Yesterday the popular blog Neatorama posted photos of one of Google’s Street View cars getting pulled over by the UK police. I thought it was rather funny because the driver was apparently driving in the bus/bicycle lane.

  9. In Florida using a mirror to look

    under a woman’s skirt is

    currently legal–not an

    invasion of privacy.

  10. Ok I live in the UK, and I don’t read or listen to the tabloid press, but I don’t like the idea of streetview taking shots of my house or my family, if Google were opt in I would have no problem, but why should I be expected to search for images of myself or family and then ask google to remove them, perhaps I should charge google for my time? I agree yes we in the UK are monitored by CCTV all the time, I don’t like this either but that is a seperate issue, but in theory that is done by private security firms and the police, not a private company who host the data for millions to see, there is a big difference.

  11. Bull, in a world where we expect surveillance, I’d much prefer the kind that is open and accessible to all, rather than the kind that is only viewable by the powers that be. The former democratizes this technology, the latter keeps it under lock and key.

  12. Stefan you do have a point, but remember google censors their data quickly enough if they are asked to by a government, even an oppressive one, so the only available data is still really dictated by our governments, still not very democratic.

  13. I only know of one case where Google censored the its global geodata layer at the request of a government — the UK govt, it turns out, in Basra, when it transpired that screenshots of UK bases in Basra were being sold in the local markets to insurgents. In that case, Google replaced newer imagery with old.

    While there may be more such cases, that’s the only documented one. There are no other examples I’m aware of where Google censored imagery at the request of governments.

  14. stefan: i couldn’t agree more!

    public space is public, and we’re all free to take photos in that space!

    i think google with blurring faces and license plates, revisiting the old footage in the US and doing the same to that footage, is very privacy friendly… not even close friends will be able to track their buddies with those blur filters applied…

    and the burglar argument is just plain stupid… well organized gangs will drive around with the high rez SLR and make their own photos of a neighborhood they wan to hit…

    the GM/GE SV footage is not high rez enough to see what locks or security measures are in place…

  15. “Bull, in a world where we expect surveillance, I’d much prefer the kind that is open and accessible to all, rather than the kind that is only viewable by the powers that be. The former democratizes this technology, the latter keeps it under lock and key.”

    well said!!! but this is very un-european, the UK and mainland europe have the old attitude of keeping data like that under lock and key… i hope google breaks that cycle!

    also with the speed measurements from the highway sensor in germany, france, italy, UK and all the other EU countries…

    i hope they make it ASAP into the google maps/google earth traffic layer!!!!

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