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May 30th, 2007
06:26 pm
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One of the most observant things I ever said was something I first pointed out four years ago: "There is no international crisis so major that it can't be interrupted by a small, stupid crisis close to home."

I wouldn't be surprised if a decent chunk of my friends list is devoting mindspace to Strikethrough 2007 right now (short summary: yes, LJ is actually deleting accounts based solely on their user interests; but before panicking, please click through the link and get all the facts).

Dealing with that is not a bad thing. It does hit close to home. It's something worth taking action on. I spent an hour or two reading up on it, and have taken a few protest actions myself.

But don't forget what's going on in the rest of the world.

And please take a moment of silence with me to mourn the age of personal privacy. It was a good age. We'll miss it.

This development by itself -- Google is apparently driving vans down the street, running cameras and getting still photos of individual buildings for Google Maps -- isn't going to singlehandedly destroy anything. But it is another line being crossed, another step down the slippery slope.

By itself it might mean little. But we're also in an age of YouTube'd cameraphone videos, overnight internet celebrities, personal blogs with global reach, archive.org, dirt-digging via search engine, ubiquitous surveillance, and terrorist watch lists.

I don't know who, for example, this guy is. But his face is already being passed around the internet (as for why, see the background of the photo. Worksafe but suggestive). Someone probably will ID him. And when he does, the odds are good that there will be bad consequences.

What stops that from happening to the rest of us? As of now, only sheer weight of humanity's numbers. There is nothing stopping random and equally embarrassing photos of me, or you, from being spread around the planet at the speed of light; all we can rely on is the fact that with so many targets out there, the odds of instant notoriety are about the same as that of winning the lottery.

Numbers will be a good defense for a while, but as the sheer amount of data and the computing power available to sift through it increases (never mind the development of increasingly sophisticated AI), even that cover will get stripped back. Fifteen to twenty years from now (assuming of course no energy crash, world war, imperial collapse, complete financial meltdown or technological singularity), I suspect we'll be at the point where basically everything we ever say, except in the most secret and encrypted spaces, will be available for endless scrutiny.*

* As opposed to now, where we can choose to put the things we say on the public record (such as here, in a public blog), but that's not the default choice for all of our communication. I read a great essay some years back -- and my google-fu is failing me at the moment -- about how the Internet was drawing a bright dividing line between hidden communication and exposed communication. It argued we're losing the ability to speak in "semi-public" space -- where we can speak up to those who want to hear without the rest of the world beating down the door to listen in. I need to find that essay again.

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(15 comments | Leave a comment)

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 04:54 am (UTC)
"This image infringes on my privacy" is a nice gesture, but what it boils down to is functionally the same thing as a "Please opt me out of your spam" link.

What a privacy ticky-box does is make us all responsible for discovering any potential appearances we might have anywhere on the service. Maybe you could make a plausible argument that common sense says we should check our homes to make certain we're not standing naked in the window; but under what sane interpretation of personal responsibility would the burden be on the guy in my post to discover the random strip-club photo before the Internet did?

And if it's his fault for doing something that he might later be ashamed of -- then whose fault is the inevitable identity theft when crooks start, e.g., trolling photos for license plates and hijacking vehicle registrations? If you've got a home address based on where it's parked, and the home's owner is a name of public record ...

Part of the problem is that this is going to grow in ways nobody now expects. Hell, it's been, what, 24 hours? ... and they've already got up a site dedicated to interesting finds.

And as I said, if it was just this, I'd be a little creeped out but not too worried. It's just, combine it with everything else ...
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 05:08 am (UTC)
He's standing on the sidewalk facing away from the strip club and could easily be waiting for traffic to clear to get across the street to the thai place, or the bodega or the movie theatre or Quiznos. Or he could have been coming from The Great American Music Hall half a block away. (This was taken a block from my dorm.) In this particular instance, if you're going to stand on a public street in downtown SF, there will be a strip club or adult business somewhere in the background.

I would have a hard time claiming invasion of privacy in this photo. He's not shown anywhere near a residence and this also falls solidly within the journalism invasion of privacy standards. While I see your point, I don't think this photo is the best example.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 07:03 pm (UTC)
True that he could be there for any number of reasons, but that's not the assumption people are going to make. If he's NOT there for porn ... well, I don't see how that makes it any better. I don't know if it's recognized in the U.S., but some jurisdictions consider information that's substantially true but misleads people into believing something false about the target to be defamatory.

And as far as invasion of privacy - what you're thinking of (seeing as how we both have media backgrounds) probably isn't actually privacy law, but rather the distinction between public and private figures and legitimate news interest. Such as:

A newspaper in Alabama published a photograph of a woman whose dress was lifted by jets of air at a Fun House at a county fair. The court ruled that the photograph, which showed her panties, had no "legitimate news interest to the public" and upheld an award of $ 4166 to plaintiff, for invasion of her privacy. Daily Times Democrat v. Graham, 162 So.2d 474 (Ala. 1964).

Used to be, when there was a limited number of publishing outlets and those had to hew to the ethical standards of old-school journalism, the "legitimate news interest" bullet point was a decent protection. But anyone who argued the same thing against the same photo on Google Maps would probably get laughed out of a courtroom; they're only a news organization by the longest stretch of the imagination, and they can argue that their "public interest" is in the full data set, the individual offending photo being triflingly incidental.

So where's our recourse if something embarrassing does come up and become a net meme?
[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
You mean like the Star Wars Kid?

I also have to come down on the side of the particular example you chose as not being a big deal, for several reasons. First, there has always been a risk of public embarrassment where personal activities are involved, and it predates even the printed word. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a group of people that debated the merits of having the events of people's lives broadcast in a newspaper, and I could even spend some time hand-picking articles from the last year to justify their apprehensions.

Then there's the matter of the embarrassment itself. As a pragmatist, I have to say that a person can only be embarrassed by something that they are ashamed of. The entire matter of embarrassment then becomes one of personal development; the individual must come to terms with their beliefs versus their actions, either by more proudly keeping their beliefs, or by changing their actions. Either way, it's somewhat irresponsible to fault others for one's embarrassment.

Oddly enough, I had to think about that a little bit today long before coming across this. I finally got a bookcase into my room and set to unpacking a couple of boxes of books. I eventually came to a couple of books that I had forgotten about, and I sat for a few minutes internally struggling with the decision to set them on the shelf, or dispose of them. I was concerned that if anyone -- say, my roommate for example, or a guest -- happened to spot them, I would be embarrassed. After considering my motivations for getting them in the first place, and their content, and the possible responses I might have for someone that asked about them, I put them on the shelf and considered the matter settled. Their titles were "Sex" (a somewhat decently-sized volume), and "A Man's Guide To Women" (much smaller; I think that's funny).

So, if the fellow there might be embarrassed by his presence outside a strip joint, he should either stop going -- he could run into his boss one evening anyway, after all -- or he should become comfortable with the fact that, hey, it's a fun place to visit.

I think your concern is stemming more from the fact that Google has a much wider circulation than any print newspaper, and that this fellow might lose his job if a co-worker happened to Google that very address. I think the first point is irrelevant, and the second point is the result of a set of societal mores that need to be addressed anyway.

What I am not in favor of, and will remain forever opposed to, is state-run surveillance for any purpose, but especially for the purposes of law enforcement. In that regard, England has become the very last place in the world that I intend to visit.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)
> "Please opt me out of your spam"

I wasn't trying to make a point about negligence, I was trying to make a point about opt-out. Let's say that spammers' opt-out links really did work and that everybody honored it. Opt-out STILL wouldn't be a solution to spam. If every company on Earth got even one free e-mail to send to you before they had to start honoring your requests, you could be deluged with millions of legal pieces of spam (even assuming you took the time to opt out of every single one), and every time a new business started, there we go again.

Extend this to please-remove-my-picture-from-your-database. Unless you have omniscient, perfect knowledge of every picture of you ever taken, and where and when it will be posted, there will be legal postings that infringe on your privacy. That's inescapable.

>> then whose fault is the theft
> ... The crooks'?

Touché. :)

But there is a growing body of case law that outlines responsibilities for people that collect your personal data. To use a physical analogy, if you have a contract with Acmeco to store your CD collection, and they leave it out on a sidewalk overnight, and it gets stolen ... yes, technically it's the thief's fault, but Acmeco acted negligently and so contributed to the theft.

The lines for responsibility over data are still being drawn, but I think we'll see them being defined in the next decade, and I really can't say whether they'll have any public benefit to them.

> the original furor over Google Maps (before it added the satellite photos)

O_o; Furor over Google Maps before the satellite photos? WTF? So basically people were objecting to the same street maps that you could pick up at any gas station across the country?

That makes no sense to me. On the other hand, street view (historically speaking) is a genuinely new service. We don't have any precedent for this, except for a few years of Youtube, Flickr et.al. Street View doesn't contribute much more than a phone book, but it does push the boundaries of the public sphere outward; you can't say that about mere maps.

That doesn't mean it's appropriate to panic, but I think there's legitimate room for concern. Shrugging this off is a perfectly defensible reaction, and hell, time may/will even prove you right; but I feel justified in mentioning my disquiet.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
An interesting article. (I got in trouble with my family a few years ago for putting Christmas photos up on Flickr. I literally didn't even think what I was doing at the time—that's just where I put photos.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 04:41 am (UTC)
Charles Stross has a fair amount of interesting stuff to say about privacy and technology. It's a lost battle at this point, and as long as we end up with something more like Brin's Transparent Society than a rigid police state, I'm fairly happy with the idea. Laws will need to adapt, and hopefully will result in eliminating many trivial and ubiquitous crimes. If the laws keep up (I expect they will in the EU and won't, at least for a while in the US), I actually think that the decline of privacy may end up being a good thing. The idea that anything done in public is explicitly public actually seems like a good idea to me. I also expect that in-home privacy will continue, but will require some effort (special window shades, etc...) to insure.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 08:12 pm (UTC)
> The idea that anything done in public is explicitly public actually seems like a good idea to me.

I respectfully disagree. This assumes good faith on the part of the watchmen.

If everything that you buy, every building that you enter, every conversation you have with friends while out over coffee, is permanently a part of the public record ... any group with a vested interest in social control has that much more ammunition against you.

To name two quick examples:

Fundamentalist religions would gain complete surveillance over their members' public lives. Any group seeking to enforce behavior restrictions on its members could have essentially cultlike control. I don't see any reasonable method of solving this social problem before the technological one overtakes us.

I don't know much about Brin's Transparent Society, but I have a hard time seeing how equiveillance would prevent state surveillance abuses. You can't decide what data the authorities gather about you, and if they set you up for a campaign of harassment, the fact that you can add context to your innocence doesn't stop them from grinding you through the wheels of bureaucracy.

And let's not even get into stalkers.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
I'm not terribly worried.

For one, as the technology matures, people will get used to it, and for two, it's not going to be nearly as widespread as everyone will have to be worried all the time. Rural places and industrial hellholes will still be pretty ignored as far as teh Google vans go.

Further, as tech improves, so does counter-tech.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 05:00 am (UTC)
"Personal indiscretions aside, the larger concern is for people entering and leaving places like domestic violence shelters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, fertility clinics and controversial religious or political events, Bankston said."

It's not the technology, it's the loss of control.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 04:57 am (UTC)
I don't think Google's the first to do this, though they may be the first for some residential areas. One of the first task sets on mturk.com, over a year ago, was picking the best photo of a given address from the set they had for its vicinity, for the A9 search.
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 05:25 am (UTC)
You know - a picture like that could, conceivably, cost me (a possible elementary school teacher) a job offer or a job (if I had a teaching job). It doesn't take much - the wrong person seeing it and questioning why I am in "that area of town" would be enough. Even if it didn't cost me a teaching job, it certainly COULD cause me enough issues to be a headache. Heck, look at the girl who had a picture of herself - as a 25 year old - drinking a beer on vacation, who was then denied a teaching degree that she had earned and a state certification that she had earned - on the grounds that it encouraged underage drinking?

And even with an opt out - how would I even know that they had my picture until it was too late?
[User Picture]
Date:May 31st, 2007 11:17 pm (UTC)
Those are some of the scenarios that have me concerned, yeah.
Date:June 1st, 2007 12:40 pm (UTC)

Well, Bruce Schneier wrote about a fair amount of this being about loss of ephemerality, which seems relevant, though probably people have already read it.

Speaking of which, I don't believe I have your public key on my GPG keyring… ;-)

[User Picture]
Date:June 1st, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC)
Looks like you're about a day ahead of the curve: Slashdot just posted a related news item that's getting some debate in the comments thread: "Google Street View Raises Privacy Concerns", about a woman who discovered that Google Street View had a picture of her cat looking out from behind her window, which sort of means that there's now a public picture of the interior of her house, taken without her permission.
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