About Street View, privacy, Sweden and the UK

Google Street View cars are apparently combing Stockholm, and when those images finally make it into Google Maps and Earth, I’m pretty sure that the Swedes won’t collectively betray anything more than amused curiosity. That’s a completely different reaction to the pockets of hysteria that greeted the advent of Street View in the UK, mainly among the gutter press and its readers. Why such a difference? Let’s think up some hypotheses.

Both in Sweden and in the UK, Google isn’t first to market with a street view product. Since October 2008, a UK company called Seety has made a proprietary street view dataset of London available on the web. Seety’s panoramic dataset is even more complete that Google’s for central London, as it contains images of plenty of mews and other small streets that Google Street View simply skipped. For example, check out Stanhope Mews East in South Kensington in Seety and in Google Street View. (Well, OK, you can’t in Street View.)

(The Mail Online used these holes in Google Street View coverage to concoct a conspiracy theory, of course.)

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the popular Swedish directory and mapping service Hitta.se has had a street view beta available for Stockholm since December 2008, based on MapJack‘s technology.

One difference between Hitta.se and Seety is that Hitta.se is a well known service in Sweden, and its introduction of street view images received widespread positive coverage in the local media, perhaps even with a frisson of glee that a local hero had beaten Google to market with something. When Google’s own imagery arrives, Swedes will see it as a catch-up maneuver; to then also worry about privacy all of a sudden would simply be too obviously hypocritical. Seety, meanwhile, doesn’t enjoy nearly the same level of mindshare in the UK. Most Londoners did not know that street view imagery of them and their homes had already been on the web for six months when Google Street View arrived.

Also: Technology journalism is mainstream journalism in Sweden. Swedes are among the most tech-savvy people in the world — bittorrent is no mystery to most of them — and many newspapers have a daily technology section. The tech news agenda in Sweden is not driven by scientifically illiterate hacks at places like The Sun. In the UK, it sometimes is.

Another difference is cultural. The compromise between transparency and privacy is drawn differently in these two countries. Swedes tend to live transparently: Home windows are rarely curtained, with little expectation that others will stop to peer in. Everyone’s tax return information is in the public domain, but most people aren’t that curious about their neighbors. A law called Allemansrätt (the right of public access) gives everyone the right to roam through private property, for personal recreation. (In the UK, the property rights of landowners are far more sacrosanct.) Swedes are conscious of these traditions, and generally prefer an open, transparent society for the benefits they feel it brings them.

It is also possible that the British, on the whole, have not in fact been in an uproar at the release of Google Street View — just British journalists, some privacy extremists, and the burghers of Broughton village. The journalists and Broughton’s villagers fulminated about how burglars would have a field day; the privacy advocates about how 360-panoramic photos of public places often incidentally contain people in them — something which British legal precedent maintains is not an invasion of privacy (reports the BBC).

According to Google, takedown requests for Street View imagery on the first day were “less than expected” (reports the Guardian). Nevertheless, Google in the end felt a potential PR crisis had to be contained, and so brought out the big guns — not just Google Geo head John Hanke, but even Google CEO Eric Schmidt, to state the company’s case.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is taking a different tack in producing a competitor to Street View — they’ll be crowdsourcing the acquisition of photos, leaving it to us to take them, and then sorting the uploaded pics spatially via their Photosynth technology. In this model, there is no systematic coverage program à la Street View, which is a technology new to most people and which reminds some of the panopticon or 1984’s big brother; taking snapshots, however, is something we’ve all done, and such familiarity is unlikely to create a backlash for Microsoft’s plan. The main question is whether crowdsourcing will produce enough usable images: Google tried to crowdsource its 3D buildings layer by making SketchUp free, but Microsoft’s own program of systematic 3D city data acquisition so outpaced Google’s that Google soon adopted Microsoft’s methods.

13 thoughts on “About Street View, privacy, Sweden and the UK”

  1. Microsoft’s Photosynth can never really compete with Street View. It’s certainly a cool tool and, like 360cities.net, is great for viewing interesting locations Google won’t/can’t send its vehicles, such as sports arenas, cathedrals, sandy beaches and castles.

    I use Street View for entirely different reasons than 360cities or Photosynth. One’s great for on-street touring, and the other for off-, so all those services, as well as Microsoft’s Birdseye View complement one another. It’s just too bad you can’t access them all at once using the same map.

    The only real competitors for Street View are companies that are providing street view-style imagery, i.e. MapJack, Norc, City8, EveryScape, etc.

  2. Seety had somehow passed me by. Its getting scary that its only when Google does something that people think its there.

    I think you’re right about the uproar being stoked by UK newspapers, mostly people in the UK aren’t particularly bothered IMHO.

    Interesting to hear the difference in Swedish attitudes

  3. OK, the UK is not Sweden. No surprise there.

    But t Street View and the cars are simply the most visible aspect of a giant American corporation perceived as arrogant and threatening. Seen as publishing for commercial purposes images of potentially identifiable individuals without their permission. Also, beyond this, having a mass of information about individual web browsing which may be sold for targeting purposes.

    Concerns are sufficient for the Information Commissioner of the EU to have announced measures to prevent information being used for ‘behaviour based’ targeting without the individual’s prior permission.

  4. Observer, I’m curious as to why Google’s nationality matters to you — would you feel better if Google were Indonesian? German? Chinese?

    And being perceived as being arrogant and threatening (?) is different from being arrogant and threatening, no?

    Another line of business that published pictures of people for commercial purposes without their permission: Journalism.

  5. Stephan – the key word in my post is “perceived”. These are not my views, but I am trying to throw light on attitudes of some in the UK.

    There is a love/hate relationship with things American, best not ignored by those who want to do successful business, and the IPR in ones own image is a very grey legal area, with many celebrities and otheres who think there should be a basic privacy right.

    So Street View is seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of not necessarily logically linked things that Google do.

  6. People can be an extremist in anything. I’m also interested in privacy, but have no expectations of privacy when in the public space, nor do I think there should be. It’s about balancing privacy against other rights we think are important.

  7. Stefan – for information: the curtilage of a house in the UK, that is the garden and other land owned or rented with the house, is not “public space”, and it is reasonable for a degree of privacy to be expected there. Is Sweden any different?

  8. In the US, UK and Sweden the expectation of privacy does not (and should not) extend to that which is in plain view from a public space. In other words, if you stand naked in front of a street-facing window of your house, then you cannot reasonably claim to have an expectation of privacy.

    There are some slippery slope arguments that we need to figure out before technological advance progresses further — but that’s for another post.

  9. Stefan – the ‘exhibitionist’ argument does not counter the fact that Street View is a deliberate, systematic and pretty comprehensive intrusion into what some people in the Uk regard as privacy. In a country with the highest density of CCTV surveillance, and where plans are now being made for the government to have access to every single communication on the internet, it is not surprising that some people are edgy.

    Personally, I find a few great images on SV, and some atmospheric ones, but the vast majority are mundane, and Google’s business aims are not yet apparent.

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