Google Earth is, simply put, an attempt to put the earth online in maps and photographs. Lately they have been adding “street views” taken by camera-equipped cars that roam the streets taking 360-degree photographs for display to anyone who types in the correct address, or latitude and longitude, or any number of other ways to indicate location that Google can figure out. While distributing scenic views of public places is nothing new, the novelty of Google’s approach is the sheer scale of what they’re doing combined with extreme ease of accessibility.
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Some folks in the English town of Broughton thought it all a bit much when the Street View car showed up on their roads recently. As the online Times of London explained, resident Paul Jacobs saw the vehicle from an upstairs window, got mad, ran down to the street, and stopped the car. Residents were already anxious about a number of burglaries in the prosperous area, and this was the last straw for several of them, who formed a human chain and blocked further access to their town. The Street View driver eventually turned around and left, and so Broughton is one of the shrinking number of places that you can’t see up close and personal on Google Earth.
I just checked to see if my own little side court in this midsize Texas town had been visited by Google Earth, and indeed it has. I can’t tell exactly when, because I don’t put a big sign out in the front yard every day with the day’s date on it. But from certain vehicles parked in driveways I can tell it’s within the last two years, and maybe more recently than that.
Would I have objected like Mr. Jacobs if I’d been here when the truck came by? Being natively technology-friendly, probably not. I might have gone out to talk with the driver, but only to ask for technical details about the camera.
I first heard about the anti-Google-Earth mob on a radio talk show focused on privacy issues. Although Google has a way for individuals (or nations, for that matter) to request that certain images be blurred or removed, this is an “opt-out” process, which builds in a bias toward display that an “opt-in” process would not have (if you had to ask Google specifically to put your street on their system, they wouldn’t display nearly as many streets). What are the ethical issues involved here?
The first step in analyzing an ethical problem is to figure out who is involved. In the case of Mr. Jacobs, for instance, the concerned parties are him and his neighbors; Google; and the rest of the world. Already we’ve got a problem, in that rarely do ethical issues go straight from a small, local population to literally everyone on earth who has a computer with network access. I say rarely, but it’s becoming more common these days as computer worms produced by small but influential outlaw groups affect millions or billions of people. Fortunately, what Google Earth is trying to do appears to be more benign, but that may be only because people of ill will haven’t figured out how to take advantage of it yet.
Clearly, if what Google Earth presented was live pictures, there would be a much bigger problem. It frankly doesn’t bother me much that a photo of my house taken some time in the last two years is online, but if it was live and burglars could just watch until they were sure no one was home, it would be a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, the potential now exists for someone (or something, in the case of automated malware) from any part of the world to use that information for inimical purposes, and there’s nothing I can do about it until after it happens.
And that may be the best thing to do in such cases. I do not generally subscribe to the “precautionary principle,” which says no new technology should be adopted until it is proven to be safe. It may be the best thing just to wait and see if anyone actually uses Google Earth’s street-view feature in the commission of a crime, and then deal with the problems that arise. That’s not too fair to the people who will be victims of the crime, but somebody has to go first, I guess. And to stray a little bit into the field of utilitarian ethics (a place I don’t like to spend much time in), there is the advantage individuals get from being able to use Google Earth to, for instance, check out motels without going there, as I did a couple of weeks ago. So maybe this kind of good for a great number of people is worth the minor risks taken by, well, almost an equal number of people. That’s the problem with utilitarianism, the math quickly gets out of hand.
As the same talk-show host pointed out, the Google Earth system is one more way of packaging ordinary people as a product. Far more likely than burglars, advertisers (or their software) will spend a lot of time studying street views. You can tell a lot about a person from looking at their house: income level, types of cars they drive, whether they need a new lawnmower, and so on. This is a use that isn’t clearly objectionable, but isn’t exactly what I had in mind, either.
So, as with so many other new technologies, we will wait and see what happens. I don’t think Google Earth’s photo cars will run into too many privacy-hungry mobs in Texas, but I’d be careful around Massachusetts and Vermont.
Sources: The online Times of London story appeared on Apr. 3 at Timesonline.com. The radio talk show was hosted by Dr. Katherine Albrecht, whose work has appeared elsewhere in this blog as the head of a group concerned about RFID usage in supermarkets.