Google does the Streisand Hoopla

Digeratus (singular form of the term Digerati, a useful misnomer) Michael Masnick founded Techdirt in 1997 and is now the blog’s President and CEO. The blog’s name alludes to its purpose; Techdirt’s team of experts gets its digital hands dirty in order to provide “the right information to the right people at the right time.”  Strangely, it appears that Masnick will be less remembered for his pioneering, visionary work in the fields of Knowledge Management than for the term “The Streisand Effect” he coined jokingly in 2005.

The Streisand Effect refers to, as Masnick himself describes it, to a situation in which “[s]omeone would get upset about something they didn’t like online and would have some lawyers send out a nasty cease-and-desist letter to get it taken offline. Such a plan would usually backfire, because getting the lawyers involved would end up drawing much more attention to whatever it was that the lawyers were trying to suppress.” The name originated in a suit by Barbara Streisand, who felt aggrieved by an online project that displayed online aerial photos of the entire California shoreline, including her house. What followed gave The Streisand Effect its name – within days, Streisand’s house became an Internet mega hit, thus guaranteeing the total disappearance of whatever was left of her privacy.

The website documents occurrences of The Streisand Effect (latest postings include a literary agents named Barbara Bauer who is suing Wikipedia in order to hide information she deemed unsuitable, a Charter boat service who got kicked out of a marina and promptly became a cause célèbre,  and a case in which the Rialto, California police told everyone where to find a video showing how to scam a Del Taco fast food eatery – to mention a few.

The Streisand Effect comes to mind in its full idiotic glory when looking at a story that is picking up momentum worldwide about Street View, Google’s new “located”, or map related, tool. When using Google Maps, users can opt for one of numerous views including an observation from cameras positioned at street-level.

Anyone over 30 remembers the globally positioned web-cams of the mid-to-late 1990s. Here, in Cape Town, South Africa we had cams observing the annual visit of the Southern Right Whales‘ visit to the little town of Hermanus, from June through to December. Other famous cams included the local publish-or-perish beach, Cape Town’s quaint shopping plaza and so on. In fact, one can still find Cape Town Webcams online. I mention these goldie-oldies to show that Google’s Street View is not a new idea. In fact, if it weren’t for a usually astute organisation called Privacy International no one would have given much attention to the fact that the local webcams may be able to capture, in addition to general views of the location, scenery and whether conditions, also the faces of passers-by.

Privacy International is not your run-of-the-mill bunch of Streisandnites – it tackles weighty issues like risks posed to United Kingdom census data by using a United States contractor without a strong protections and the question whether it is acceptable for the UK Government to keep DNA profile of juveniles on the National DNA Database. According to the BBC, Privacy International argued that Google Street View cams accidental capture of people’s faces is an infringement of their rights. Local Privacy International person told BBC News that Google should obtain the consent of each of the people whose face shows up on Street View cams because pictures are taken for commercial reasons. Google refutes this, arguing that they use special face-blurring algorithms to ensure anonymity.

One can understand the noble principles behind PI’s argument. I had the same sense of apprehension when I learned about gypsii – Facebook’s so called ‘Friend locator’ – a stupid gadget that risks breaching people’s privacy in the name of friendship (as well as the Facebook chequebook need to harvest user details for advertising) and ditto Facebook gizmo codename Beacon. What amazes me is how Privacy International expects Google to harvest consents from passer-bys as they walk across the cam’s path. Shall we simply kill the Street View project, in case Mr Jones objects to have his blurred face appearing online? Surely this is taking the sacred principle of privacy a tad too keenly? The statistical chances of having one’s face un-blurred and used to hurt him-her are probably similar to the chances of having Ms Streisand’s house singled out photographically for the sole purpose of invading her privacy.

Now that the Streisand Effect genie is out of the bottle, one can assume that some people will get curious about the faceless people onscreen and, as a result, previously innocuous shots of locations worldwide will undergo digital deblurring in order to find out who is trawling Athens’ Syntagma Square, Paris’ Montmartre,  Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht, Mumbai Colomba market, or the Great Wall of China (the Great Wall of China) right now.

Is it your picture over there?

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