Trust or privacy?

By Matt Cornock

This is a follow-up post to the Top 10 Google Streetview Pros and Cons post. A lot of the arguments on the internet still focus on privacy issues. However, how do web users consider their own web security?

In my view it comes down to trust, rather than maintaining personal privacy. Can we trust a global corporation with the data they collect? Unfortunately, what we forget is how much data we give these corporations freely. For example, Facebook and other websites collect a phenomenal amount of personal data and host pictures we freely upload. It’s not that difficult to tie the name in a profile with the photo (indeed the ‘tagging’ function does this explicitly), so why do people get worried about Google Streetview? Google blurs faces and number plates, and does not give exact locations but provides an ‘estimate’ to the current house number. It’s very difficult for someone to be identified using Google Streetview alone. There have been cases where people have been identified, but using additional sources of information (e.g. someone knowing them for certain). Google Streetview is, in my view, nothing more than a more consise patchwork of photos which would have otherwise been taken by tourists and posted on Flickr.

I have the perspective that we live in a ‘nanny state’ in which the Orwellian prophesy has come scarily close to becoming truth. Every time we turn on our phone and send a text our location is recorded, every email passes through hundreds of routers, etc. Some of this is good and some of it is data collection for the sake of data collection. Part of the biggest problem we have to address is how we decide what data should be collected and stored, and what should be discarded. At the moment we favour the approach to collect and store everything, as it is the most objective position to take. As soon as we start introducing the idea of filtering unnecessary data, it becomes subjective as someone, somewhere, would have to have made the decision in creating a filtering algorithm. In Google Streetview, this filtering is the blurring of faces. Google decided that personal data is not necessary for Streetview and in this certifies that the tool is to help people find their way, and not to help people identify individuals. Google is in essence a giant data collection company, however by introducing this element of trust, we see Google not as a corporate Goliath (which it is) but as a people-focused organisation.

I think another of the big questions over Google’s tools is whether this data (search, maps, streetview) should have been made public at all? We have to accept that governments (and their contracted private companies) hold a large amount of data about us already, which we have provided and they have collected. However, as soon as a non-state organisation starts to develop their own data collection methods we tend to get agitated. State bodies must keep data secure, and legally so should private organisations, so why is there such a conflict? Non-state private organisations answer to their shareholders and the law, state bodies answer to the voting public (in theory). Which has more trust? As Google collects data and makes it publically available, this creates a sense of mistrust. Though, in reality it is not Google who enacts on this data. If somone decides to use the data that Google has made available for unethical actions, it is that individual who is in the wrong, not Google. If the data wasn’t there in the first place, would that still make that person do wrong or not? What we don’t tend to see is how non-corporate, state bodies are using our data. What we know can’t hurt us, right?

Unfortunately Google doesn’t do itself any favours. See all the blog posts around the world about the launch of Google Buzz!

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