Note to privacy advocates: Good luck

Privacy advocates have an ax to grind with Google for helping to move more of our lives into the public realm. But there's a long list of others in the same camp.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

There are plenty of legitimate concerns about the privacy intrusions of Google Maps' Street View, but one privacy group went a bit overboard with an attack on the search giant's all-seeing eye.

"Google's hypocrisy is breathtaking," accused Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, in a statement last week. Perhaps, but he would have been better to pick stronger grounds for his conclusion.

The center provided two recent quotations from Google as evidence. First was "privacy does not exist," from Google's May 28 rebuttal to an April invasion-of-privacy suit related to Street View. Second was "Google takes privacy very seriously," from Google's response to a request that California's attorney general scrutinize privacy implications of Google's ad partnership with Yahoo.

The National Legal and Policy Center took a jab at Google by posting Street View directions to a top Google executive's house.
The National Legal and Policy Center took a jab at Google by posting Street View directions to a top Google executive's house. National Legal and Policy Center

Those two statements indeed appear contradictory. The trouble is that the center significantly distorted the first, which actually was the much milder assertion, "Today's satellite-image technology means that...complete privacy does not exist."

Boehm also took issue with a statement by Internet pioneer and Google evangelist Vint Cerf. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Cerf said in May, "nothing you do ever goes away and nothing you do ever escapes notice." Then, in what the newspaper described as an "intentionally flippant moment," Cerf added, "There isn't any privacy, get over it."

It sounded to me like Cerf was channeling the eminently quotable and frequently flippant Scott McNealy, who back when he was Sun Microsystems chief executive said, "You have no privacy. Get over it." In any event, Cerf explained himself to Google Blogoscoped: "It was intended to be partly in jest and partly irony...I was trying to suggest that we really have entered a period when things are a lot less private. Think of the ease with which photos and videos can be taken, digitized, shipped around on the Internet, posted on YouTube or its equivalent."

So perhaps Boehm was overreached in his choice of evidence. But I think he's correct in his judgment that privacy "is being chipped away bit by bit every day by companies like Google."

Google Street View is one example. Even though it's legal to take photographs from a public street, there's no question it's a notch harder to hide from prying eyes, in particular because Street View provides a mechanism to look exactly where you want to look, then virtually stroll down the street. Other sites, such as Flickr, provide plenty of photographs, often in much more private circumstances, but it's harder to use that to systematically explore an area.

But the larger issue is that Cerf is right. Leaving Street View aside, it's just easier to record, share, and archive information, and the same Internet-powered economy of scale that makes eBay work also amplifies the petty annoyances of neighborhood-scale prying and gossip to the global level. So while it's smart for privacy advocates to take on Google, the practical reality is they also have to take on chat rooms, photo-sharing sites, social networks, any charity that records donors' names, digital camera manufacturers, Internet access providers, banks with security cameras, and heaven knows what else.

Good luck with that.

Even if advocates manage to spur privacy regulation and shame companies into privacy-respecting behavior, technology means progress will be tough.

For the record, Google has a mechanism that lets people with privacy concerns request that images be removed from Street View. Clicking the "help" icon above a Street View image provides an option to report an "inappropriate" image. The reporting form includes an option for "privacy concerns," including "I have found a picture of my house and would like it removed."

Google also offers a form to request removal of your phone number from Google's phone book database, which lets searchers find out who a phone number is registered to.