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Privacy: Losing Our Virginity

If you type my postcode into Google maps, you see a lovely, flat, open field of grass. There is no house to be seen. Thankfully, Google’s modern equivalent of the Gestapo has yet to take an up to date photo of the locale. Instead of seeing my house at street view, the best you can get is a helicopter view of what the patch of ground that it was built on looked like more than five years ago. That is lucky for me, because the patch of ground is far prettier than my house. Imagine trying to sell your house if, instead of the cleverly-angled photos to give the best impression the day after you clipped the hedge, first impressions were based on Googlestapo’s street view. ‘Click’ goes the shutter, and your house is immortalized, whether you like it or not. Now anyone can see all those ugly signs that the council (always careful not to waste money, they assure us) finds necessary to erect immediately outside. For example, there is a very big sign, the purpose of which seems to be to inform the people living across the street to be careful because there is a cycle lane. There is no evidence of a cycle lane, unless the cycle lane is supposed to the strip of pavement that doubles up as being where people are supposed to walk. There was a time when the law said cyclists were supposed to cycle on the road, and leave the sidewalk so people could perambulate in peace. Nobody seems to take that law seriously any more, since cyclists were somehow elevated to saviours of the planet and hence in need of the tender loving care that only the state’s endless pot of borrowing can provide.

It is not like I have ever seen a cyclist riding along outside my house. My house is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else, so the only people who might ride a bike outside my house are either starting or ending their journey very close by. It is beyond me how protecting their interests, by warning anyone who happens to look at the sign to be careful, is a public spending priority. For a start, any drivers may be better advised to keep their eyes on the road, instead of reading this ridiculous sign which only tells them to do what they should be doing anyway.

“How does the defendant plead?”

“Not guilty.”

“But we have video evidence and ten eyewitness accounts from bystanders, all saying your Range Rover piled into the Hatfield elderly ladies cycling club at 247 mph, killing eight and seriously injuring another thirty-seven, not to mention the substantial damage done to the bicycles, some of which were beyond repair.”

“Ah yes, but I contend that the council hadn’t erected a sign telling me not to do it.”

Then, you have to ask exactly how dangerous the road is anyway, for the few cyclists that might ever be using it. The speed limit is twenty miles per hour. It is a quiet back road, and not a rat run to anywhere in particular. A car may drive along it once every ten minutes, perhaps once every five minutes at peak time. There are speed bumps every few hundred yards. So how does the council decide to prioritize the spot outside my house as needing uglification in the cause of cycling safety?

What you would not see, if Googlestapo took an up to date photo of my house, is any evidence of a litter bin so people can throw their rubbish away. So what you would see, in just such a photo, is a lot of litter on the ground. There is an empty bottle of Lucozade lying on the ground next to the cycling safety sign, for instance. I do not know how you should measure the public need for cycle lanes and the public need for signs to protect people using cycle lanes and the public need for signs to protect people using cycle lanes even though there is no cycle lane. I also do not know how you compare these public needs with the public need to provide bins where people can throw away their rubbish. Even so, it seems to me that my community fairly obviously needs more litter bins and could have done without the cycling safety sign. Perhaps common sense is the only way to decide between spending on signs and spending on bins. Which is probably why the council struggles to measure it amongst their targets.

“We’re getting a lot of criticism that we don’t show enough common sense.”

“I can’t understand that. Nobody has shown us a report saying we’re falling short of our common sense targets. Isn’t common sense up 12% on the same quarter last year.”

“No sir. Erm, I don’t think we measure common sense. And I’m pretty sure we don’t have a target for it.”

“Well, that’s where we’re going wrong. How can we have more common sense unless we measure whether we have more common sense? We need a target for common sense. That makes sense to me.”

“Errr… how do we set a target for common sense, sir?”

“Do I have to do all the thinking for you? We set the common sense target the same way as we set all the other targets. Pay some consultants to do it for us. And then make the target 25% easier so we have some slack.”

So here I am, in a housing slump, when nobody can borrow the money or wants to buy a house, and the government has decided that what we need is another 15,000 new houses built nearby, right next to all the newly-built houses that have signs reading:


“House to let.
House is completely new and nobody can afford it.
Please take it off our hands at a greatly reduced price, even if it is just for a short while.
Yours faithfully,
The Builders.”

In the midst of this disaster which will depress my house price until 2020, by which time they will be spending public money on building houses on Mars, Googlestapo wants to show the whole world photos of my house and the neighbouring houses, and hence why they should not want to live there. Great. Just what I needed.

The thing about privacy is that it is one side of a zero-sum game with information. Somebody finds out some information they did not know before, but somebody else loses their privacy. Not all information is private, but in our legality-obsessed world, we are reducing all information to the black and white categories of public and private. There used to be more shades of grey about who could know what. Friends and family might have information that did not get shared with the world. Your neighbours might know the state of your garden, but your boss would not. The difficulty of gathering information was an effective way of filtering who got to know what. Now, as Google pursues its mission to make gathering information infinitely easier, we are left with no filters, no shades of grey – only the final defence of the ‘private’.

How far is going too far? It is a question many a young woman has had to struggle with. Where do you draw the line, and insist “no means no”? What can you say yes to, without suffering the accusation that you were “leading on” the other party? Google’s need to share pictures of our houses and streets, and of the people walking along them, is the information equivalent of heavy petting. We may enjoy it with some people, but most of us would be selective about who we share it with. It is not rape, but we know there is a danger if it gets out of hand, and we know we may be skirting closer to the line that has to be drawn. Of course, there are many information sluts. People who blog and twitter and tell you all sorts of things about themselves that you really did not want to know – like whether a public safety sign has been erected outside of their house. But even the sluts want to control what information they give away. Even the information whores might chose not to tell you everything about themselves. In the end, a prostitute might refuse to kiss a client. And even if there are information sluts, that does not mean we all choose to be so free with giving away our secrets.

Google’s mission to show the world at street level goes beyond the wholesome and dabbles with the voyeuristic. Just like a low-cut dress or a high-cut skirt is not an invitation, but it is a flirtation, people need to be realistic about the impact of what they show to the world. The effect, whether on strangers or on people they know, will not always be a good one. Doing the right thing would be easier if evil were black and white, like Google’s corporate philosophy suggests. In this case, Google are not clothing themselves in the heavy black of evil, they are dressed in the dark grey of being irresponsible. What one lady finds to be healthy attention may be deeply upsetting to another. To protect people, we must err on the side of caution. We do not lift up somebody’s skirts and wait to see if we get slapped, concluding that if no slap comes then no harm was done, and if slapped that we did wrong and will not raise the skirt of that lady again. Yet that is exactly the approach of the Googlestapo, as they catalogue and index the world at street level. If you have an objection to one of their photographs, then they will take it seriously and remove it from the internet. You might as well promise to say sorry to the girl whose skirt you lifted. It is too late then. Privacy is like virginity. Once lost, it stays lost. Once information is put in the public domain, it cannot be made private again. At best you can resurrect those greying filters, in the hope that the secret is not shared too quickly, with too many more people. But the nature of gossip tells us that the information people will least want shared is the information that people will expend most effort on sharing.

Google can hide behind public officials, who have sanctioned what they are doing. Google getting endorsement from the UK’s Information Commissioner to take photos of our houses is like Bill Clinton defining the meaning of “sex” with his lawyers. Whatever rule they come up with will be unsatisfactory for a myriad of reasons, not least because most of us will have our own personal reasons to question whether the lines were drawn in the right place. You would not rely on a public servant to protect your daughter’s chastity, so why expect them to protect your privacy? Ten years on from the UK’s Data Protection Act 1998, which set up the Commissioner’s office and which stipulated that personal information should be held securely, the UK is a country where personal information has repeatedly been lost and stolen. Nobody can measure how much has ended up in the wrong hands, or the damage that has caused. What we can measure is how successful the words of a bunch of lawyers were at stopping it: not at all. We can also measure how successful the public servants, including the Information Commissioner, were at stopping it: not at all.

Maybe within ten years time, we will be reading the story of somebody who was raped or murdered and how information about the victim was garnered by the assailant using Google’s intrusive photographs. At that time, we will also hear a lot of humbug from the Information Commissioner about how this will show the need for the Commissioner to have new powers, about how it is a very serious sign that the Commissioner needs a lot more resources, and about how nobody could have predicted what happened. Taking the last point first, of course it is predictable; I am predicting it now. It is as predictable as the countless predictions that the 1998 law to protect personal data would do nothing to reduce carelessness with people’s personal information, not least by the same government that passes these laws and employs these public servants. Government appointees get chosen not because they do the things that need to be done, but because they sound like they are doing the right things. In 1998, the government appointees were telling the country how they would be securing our data. Ten years later, they were demanding more power and more resources to do the same job. They should have said they lacked the powers and resources to do the job before it became public knowledge after people’s privacy had been violated over and over. I see the decisions about Googlestapo’s street photography as the start of a similar chain of events. A public appointee has negotiated with Google what it takes to secure someone’s privacy. The implication is that privacy can be reduced to a universal algorithm; that privacy can be delivered by code to blur a face or a number plate, thus rendering them unrecognizable. Some cars and some people will be recognizable even if blurred. People will be recognized by their clothes, people will recognize be their stature, people will be recognized by the simple fact that they live in the areas where there photographs are taken. The same will even apply to some cars; I know what Starsky’s car in the 70’s cop show Starsky & Hutch looks like, though I have no idea about the number on the plate. It is a travesty that a public official, whose role is to protect privacy, can agree that blurring makes people unrecognizable, and hence ensures their privacy is protected. At best, it protects the privacy of most, but obviously will not be fool-proof. Contrast this lackadaisical approach to securing our privacy with the advice the government gives on how we should protect our information assets. They do not tell us to share our passwords only with people we trust, because most of them can be relied upon, or not to bother shredding documents because most of the time nobody is rifling through our bins, yet they allow Google to adopt privacy-protecting measures that will work most of the time, but not all of the time.

There is no point rifling through the reasons stated for why these compromises get nodded through, as the public words tell us nothing about the real reasons. Government is weak, and Google is strong. Government is worried about popularity, and Google is confident about theirs. Government is about making compromises to stay in power a little longer, and Google just needs to keep rolling in the money forever (whilst pretending it will never do so in an “evil” way). The only time the balance will change is when something goes horribly wrong and public sympathy shifts as a result, at which time the Information Commissioner will be demanding more to do the job he was supposedly doing before. No mention will be made about the culpability of his office in allowing our privacy to be violated. The real problem here is that part of the problem is posing as part of the solution. Relying on government to regulate our privacy is like relying on government to regulate our money. The will to impose rules will only be discovered after things go terribly wrong. Even then we should be pessimistic about the competence of the individuals tasked to impose those rules, who doubtless built their reputations by being a respected part of the flawed system. Asking some to rise through a career path and then, once they reach the top, to look down and fix what is wrong with the system is like asking someone to climb to the top floor and to build the stairs from the top down. Buildings are built from the bottom up. You need solid foundations to build a solid building, yet the government appointees will have reached the top precisely because they turned a blind eye to the inadequacies they saw as they climbed upward. Expecting the products of flawed systems to fix the flaws in systems is like asking a cowboy builder to build your house, or asking the council to spend more money on bins that are needed and less on safety signs that nobody will read. If governments cannot take care of your money, whether it is the money they spend or the money in the bank, what are the chances they will take care of your right to privacy?

So far the Googlestapo is telling the world I live on an open green field, with not a house nor a person for miles around. For the sake of my privacy, that is the safest place I could be, and at least it helps to keep the cyclists away.

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