Snap happy?

Google vexed privacy campaigners last week when its camera cars began photographing streets and buildings for its Street View project.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  July 21, 2008

Google, the search engine giant whose unofficial motto is ‘Don't be evil', vexed UK press and privacy campaigners last week when its camera cars began photographing streets and buildings as part of its Street View project. Might this occur here and would any privacy concerns be the same? Matt Wade investigates...

Much of the British press was up in arms: ‘Big Brother Google cars photograph every door in Britain' hollered the Daily Mail, ‘Google view is good for thieves' exclaimed The Sun; whilst the more sedate Telegraph remarked simply that ‘Private moments' were being captured.

Away from the media, Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International in London, pulled no punches either. He was quoted by The Times as saying, "The cultural imperative within Google is anti-privacy, no matter what they say. This is just the latest in a litany of privacy invasions by Google, which they justify by claiming openness as an excuse."

Quite a stir. How might such responses sound then, I wondered, if Google announced it was to bring its Street View project - which tacks still street-level photographs onto Google Earth and Google Maps -to the Middle East? Does the company plan to? And would this prompt an equal or greater number of complaints here?

First stop, Google. Is Street View coming to this region? How might that work? I checked with the search giant's Middle East HQ and the answer, explained by its spokesperson in full here, can best be surmised by the word ‘possibly'.

Google would, the spokesperson confirmed, only consider rolling out Street View here in strict accordance with local privacy-related rules and regulations. But it certainly hasn't discounted Street View for this region.

To my mind, this raises two main questions: would the same privacy concerns raised in the UK - if we can agree that these are truly valid (more below) - also apply here? And question two: are there additional ‘cultural' issues here that Google would need to take heed of?

Let's first examine the key UK concerns outlined in the gamut of stories last week. Complaint number one seemed to me to be that individuals can be spotted on Street View, doing whatever they normally do in public - where it's argued they still have a right to privacy. In the case of them doing things that might be considered of a personal nature, such as going to the doctor's, or morally questionable things, this point was made even more strongly.

At present Google blurs the faces of people captured on its US and UK Street View shots, in order to hide their identities. However UK privacy campaigners have suggested this isn't good enough, as a person could be identified through the combination of his/her clothes, bag, accessories etc. They might well have a point here - after all a distinctive coat bought on vacation, twinned with a one-off unique bag isn't impossibility.

So what would be the situation in the UAE regarding showing pictures of people going about their business?

Legally speaking, the publishing of identifying images seems could potentially raise issues for Google here. A legal advisor from a top UAE law firm this week explained to me that there are several articles of law in the UAE relating to personal and ‘familial' privacy.

Take for instance article 378 of the UAE Penal Code. This prohibits the publication of people's private affairs - namely the publishing of ‘news, pictures or comments pertaining to the secrets of the people's private or familial lives even if such publications are real and true'. That may possibly then apply to such medical visits above, or a shot of a private building's window that was zoomed a little too closely, displaying something of the room and people inside.

I haven't received official advice on the specific legal situation in Saudi Arabia, but could it be that Google taking pictures of women would be an issue? Certainly that's my layman's understanding.

I wonder therefore, if Google ever did snap the streets there or here, whether its technology could remove entire people from its shots - if that's what local law makers called for? Likely yes I'd suggest, as most graphic designers can handle this bit of image-wizardry without too much stress.

A second reason for UK commentators' griping about Street View regarded it being effectively what‘s termed a ‘burglar's charter' - in that the images it offers could give budding house-breakers a free tool with which to ‘case joints' they wanted to rob. If this argument is valid, then it would certainly be one with Middle East repercussions, considering so few residents - of the UAE at least - have home contents insurance. But does it really have any legs, this ‘they can see what's on offer' line of attack?

I've considered this at length, and I struggle to get too excited about this particular moan. It's true that would-be attackers can log-on and see streets and buildings (and for some privacy campaigners, that may be reason enough to complain), however said baddies could drive or walk down the same street just as easily (and without needing a computer; arguably more convenient).

Another key point is that potential thieves couldn't use Street View to make a final decision on where to break into ‘right now' anyway; they'd need to also physically check out a property too. That's because if Street View UK is anything like Google Earth UK, then Google's images will almost instantly be out of date. (Case in point: the car parked outside the house I grew up in, as shown on Google Earth yesterday, was the car our family sold a full six years ago. So good luck trying to work out whether we're on holidays or not - none of us even live there any more - from that picture.)

To attempt a summary, one of the main issues screamed about in the UK - the burglar's charter idea - I regard as arguable at best, as Street View isn't giving burglars information they couldn't get otherwise. Yes they would have to venture outside, but counterbalancing that is the fact that even in the US cities Google has snapped, far from every street is shown - it really is a sample selection at present. And most of these streets are town centre locations, not in suburbia.

However the general notion of people having a moral right to privacy in public would, I think apply here, if not on a legal level then at least morally. And there is the real possibility of local ‘personal and familial secret' laws here being fringed upon by Street View.

There are certainly issues that Google would need to consider carefully and receive serious legal advice on. And it will be interesting to see whether such considerations then immediately kill off the idea of Street View Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. Until then, I'll be trying to spot my one American friend on the streets of New York...

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