Monday, March 11, 2013

Will We Expect the Media To Protect Location Privacy?

I came across this article from The Telegraph online while putting together the Centre's weekly Spatial Law and Policy Update.  The article references an individual who was very unhappy that an image of his home was available on Google Street View. He was concerned that burglars could use the imagery to target homes in the neighborhood. A number of other sites have subsequently cross-linked to the article.

The reporter's (a "Technology Correspondent") intent is clearly to highlight the need for greater protection of individuals' location privacy. For example, the article cites the reported 'sheer arrogance' of Google in not blurring the pictures of the home, and references the citizens as "security-conscious".

However, the reporter (or editor) included a few other items of information in his article, including:

1. The individual's full name;
2. His city;
3. His neighborhood;
4. His street;
5. His leadership position (in business)
6. A blurred image of a home with a beautiful yard, fronted by a small brick wall and a paved driveway.

Based upon this information, a quick and simple internet search will lead to the individual's exact address (as well as a great deal of other information that the individual wishes were private).  

One can argue the merits of services such as Google Street View and views can differ on the associated privacy concerns. However, I think that most people would be more concerned about the privacy risks associated with the additional information included in the article rather than an image of a home from a publicly accessible street. By granting an interview to the reporter some would argue that the individual has given his consent to the use of his name and "location" - which is a fundamental principle in most privacy regimes. But was that consent "informed". Did the individual know exactly what additional information would be aggregated with his name to provide additional substance to the story and how the information could be used? Most likely not.

I don't mean to suggest that the reporter intended to violate the individual's privacy. Rather, I am trying to point out some of the difficulties in protecting (regulating) privacy from a location standpoint. Society is beginning to recognize what the geospatial community has known for a long time - location information is powerful. And some segments of society are very uncomfortable with this power. However, it is important to acknowledge that most people are so used to giving - and using - location information that it is almost second nature. (For example, the reporter in the article referencing the street, city and individual's name).  There is a real risk that without informed discussion, efforts to protect privacy from a location standpoint will bump up against these customary uses of location information. The result is likely to be some surprising and unintended consequences.

(Some of you will note that this is not the first time I have addressed this particular issue.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

good points.
is there any developing legislation addressing this issue?

This is an issue, very few know how exposed home owners are and how easy it is to get information about them, where they live, how much property taxes they paid, even a basic idea of the interior space.

at the very least, anyone requesting/querying online information, data owners should provide notification to the owner their information was reviewed.