March 25 2009

Keeping control

Posted by matt in Debate, Rambles, Web 2.0

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So the media outcry about Street View continues. Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) today defended the roll-out of Google Street View to UK cities by saying that "We agree with the concerns over privacy... The way we address it is by allowing people to opt out, literally to take anything we capture that is inappropriate out... and we do it as quickly as we possibly can."

Schmidt missed the point with great precision: the reason that many people feel uneasy about Street View is that it is impossible to find out if you are somewhere in there. You can't opt out if you don't know whether or where you are even included. Faced with this vast volume of information, it is simply impossible to manage your own digital identity. You don't know what of you is out there, or how you appear (regardless of how many guilty secrets could have been snapped by Google's roving cameras).

This is particularly significant if we consider that schools and universities spend considerable time and effort emphasising the importance of digital identities, teaching Twitter literacy, or interview technique (dangers of scandalous photos or inappropriate comments appearing in internet search). Many of us spend a good proportion of free time managing our online identities, whether through Twitter, Facebook, blogging, or massively multiplayer gaming. That people are concerned about the unknowable possibility of their presence on Street View is hardly surprising, regardless of whether they have something to hide.

Still, is it not a bit bizarre that citizens of one of the most CCTV-observed countries on the planet are concerned about a few static frames online? We could regard Street View as an exercise in open access to information, surely a step in the right direction, toward databases that presume freedom of information rather than hide from it.

Indeed, in the wake of exposure of inappropriate surveillance by our own government, it is slightly amusing that Street View now has a black hole where the Houses of Parliament used to be. However worried we might get about practices of surveillance, it is perhaps comforting that the centre of our state feels exactly the same as we do.

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