Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is the EU "short-sighted" when it comes to Street View?

Many European governments (and citizens) have expressed concerns about the privacy implications associated with Google's Street View - the street level images taken from cameras mounted on cars. Most recently, the European Union (EU) advised Google that it should warn towns and cities before beginning to collect images from its Street View vehicles. The EU, according to press reports, also suggested that Google should keep original photos online for only six months instead of a year. (Ironically, this could result in Google having to reshoot Europe every six months, which should raise even more privacy concerns.) This request was made even though Google is taking images from public places and already posts the itinerary for its vehicles on-line and blurs faces and license plates and will remove an image upon request.

The EU increasingly appears to be coming down on the side of individual privacy at the expense of Street View technology. As a result, Google may decide it no longer makes sense to offer Street View in Europe. However, one might question if the EU fully appreciates the value of the Street View data or has truly weighed the opportunity cost associated with losing this service in Europe.

Street View is more than a series of random images of a city or town. It is an organized collection of important information about a location at a given point in time at no cost to the government and available to its citizens for free. This information has tremendous potential value for future as well as current use. For example, imagine how valuable Street View would have been after the recent earthquakes in Haiti or Chile. Rescue workers would have been able to identify where to search with much greater precision and the images would have provided valuable information for reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately, European cities are at risk from similar natural disasters. Or imagine what today's historians could do if they had access to similar imagery of ancient Greece.

Protecting individual privacy is difficult, as the concept itself generally has both a legal and a cultural component. It becomes even more of a challenge when new technology is introduced, and often results in a cost/benefit analysis. However, any such analysis must be thorough and well informed. Restricting the use of new technology without such a rigorous analysis may ultimately prove to be short-sighted.


Gus said...

There is no Cartographic Agency in the world reporting complete and realistic data of its territory. Scale, precision and resolution are under control in every countries of the World, including USA. Europe has its data model for report public information, INSPIRE-configurated, which covers environmental, civil and policy uses. Other uses or data sources ( Street View ) can be compatible, but don´t know why has to be more detailed, especially when owned by a private company ( Corporation?)

Jeff said...

Interesting post.

I think the debate around privacy is a good thing. Given the 'EU' is about government, it is not surprising that issues relating to citizens are at the forefront. There is a strong preference in Europe about governments representing people - bottom up, not the other way around. This is particularly evident in Germany, where being told 'this will be good for you' has historical meaningfulness.

I don't see Google entering into a dialogue with people, merely tossing technology out into the wild. It might help to actually talk to people in communities.