Google: Welcome to Privacy 2.0

Although Google’s “Street View” visual search service isn’t in Canada yet, federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart already has her hackles up about the idea. Why? Because the service involves taking millions of photos of street-level scenery, and some of that scenery just might include people — and that, she says, might contravene the requirements of the federal privacy law, PIPEDA (if you really need to know what that stands for, you can look here).

citizen media.jpgAs it happens, Google’s relatively new service has a strong Canadian connection already, since Calgary-based Immersive Media is the company that has been sending out squads of cars with 360-degree cameras mounted on them. In fact, Immersive already has a significant library of images from major Canadian centres such as Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa. You can see a full map of the routes and cities that the company has already scanned on its website. Ms. Stoddart says she has already written to both Google and Immersive Media, telling them that she is concerned the new service will breach the protections included in PIPEDA and asking them to respond.

Street View “does not appear to meet the basic requirements of knowledge, consent, and limited collection and use as set out in the legislation,” Ms. Stoddart said.


In a comment on my Globe blog, Colin McKay from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner says that the office is discussing with Immersive Media what steps they might be able to take “to render their images at a lower resolution to avoid the sort of concerns we have raised.”

This is an issue that the U.S. has already had to confront, since the service was rolled out earlier this year. After it was launched, users started posting snapshots of people — their faces fairly recognizable — being arrested, leaving adult video stores and urinating in the street. One woman posted a picture of her apartment, in which her cat was clearly visible in the window, and said she felt like she was under surveillance.

Google says it is more than happy to take down photos if someone complains, and has also pointed out that it contacted women’s support shelters and other institutions before launching the service and doesn’t include photos of those kinds of sites. The company also says that the pictures it is using are not an invasion of privacy, since what they show would be readily visible to anyone walking or driving down the street.

At the same time, however, it does seem as though there is something qualitatively different about what Google is doing. For one thing, the photos can be seen (theoretically) by millions of people, and they are also (theoretically) permanent. And yet, they are taken from a public street — something anyone with a cellphone could do if they wanted to. Does it matter that this is being done by a large, for-profit corporation? It seems to.

And still, the question remains: Where do we draw the line? Former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy famously said in 1999 that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Not everyone is willing to do so, however.

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