Google Street View: All the World’s a Stage

Yesterday I joined the NPR “Talk of the Nation” program to discuss Google’s privacy policies. The callers were most fascinated by Google’s new “Street View” feature, which lets users “view street level shots of each block.” One said this was obviously not a privacy violation, since it only took photographs of things in public view. But others felt they should be able to go out in public and not worry about some random picture of them (say, leaving a chiropractor’s office) permanently in a Google database.

I had some sympathy for both sides, but ultimately more for the latter. I think it’s one thing when, say, a single photographer on Flickr takes a photograph of someone incidentally with no personally identifiable information. “Permissions culture” has gone to such extremes that it seems unfair to burden shutterbugs with obligations to get clearances from anyone they shoot–and even in this case, there are some limits internationally (“In Québec, a teenage girl successfully sued a photographer for $8,000 after he took her picture without her knowledge, even though she was sitting on the front steps of a public building.”).

But the case of a Google or Yahoo!, with immense, cross-checkable databases, is another matter altogether. We know that government has sought extensive access to these databases. Face recognition technology may reach a point where any image can be traced back to a name or number. I think it safe to assume that just about any surveillance technology applied by the private sector can eventually be coopted by the government if a security threat becomes pressing.

So should we cheer on claims like “intrusion upon seclusion” against Google Street View? I’m not willing to say that, because we have yet to see exactly how it’s being used. (Sadly, we may never get that information from Google, because the company may call it a trade secret.) But I do hope for two things:

1) A realization that technology like this is not simply a product of Google, but can be put to many ends by a security apparatus willing to force corporations to ignore existing privacy laws. We may well want to go in the direction of London’s CCTV, but we should have some architecture for regulating that transition. Someone has to be able to watch the watchers.

2) Some reflection on the types of public activity that are likely to decline when “all the world’s a stage.” Sure, we can catch people robbing banks more easily (or exiting strip clubs); but what happens to protest? Will people think twice about going to an anti-war demonstration if they know the whole thing will be captured, forever, by entities unaccountable to them? On a less political level, will everyday life become more and more a “new American performing reality?” Perhaps Goffman’s idea of the “stage” is about to be extended to every public street in America.

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