FOR THE WEEK OF JUNE 18, 2007
Online privacy gets new test from Google cameras
Newspaper photos of sports events, street scenes, parks and public gatherings may show people who didn’t expect media attention. Invite class members to find an example and discuss what privacy expectations – if any – are reasonable in public places.
Plenty of evidence online, in newspapers and on TV confirms that many people aren’t shy. Ask students to list ways that this newspaper lets readers be heard, seen and identified by name.
Professional journalists follow ethical guidelines to protect privacy. Challenge the class to give examples of sensitive situations that are reported without identifying some people involved. Besides names, what may be omitted to respect privacy and avoid possible harm?
Internet users are abuzz about Google's new Street View feature on maps for five urban areas, which have 360-degree panoramic photos of addresses that include walkers, sunbathers, bikers, boarders, bladers and others who happen to be recorded by unmarked vans in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Miami and Las Vegas. Though street-level scenes generally are on public property, critics say posting them online could embarrass people leaving a strip club, Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, reproductive health clinic or controversial political event. “Google spies on America,” the online magazine Slate headlined its report.
Outcries over street-cams come on top of wider concerns about shielding personal information online. For instance, Google for years has stored every Web search and analyzes Gmail topics so it can show related ads to users. It recently bought DoubleClick, an online ad agency that tracks surfing behavior across different client sites. “The combination could give Google an unprecedented ability to profile Web users and their preferences,” warns a New York Times editorial. It worries about a database that includes “sensitive information, like what diseases users have or what political causes they support.”
As these developments show, online privacy may be what’s called an oxymoron (OX-see-MORE-on) – which means a phrase with an internal contradiction. Some young job-seekers learn that painful lesson when background checks by employers turn up indiscreet MySpace or Facebook profiles and snapshots.
Google says: ”We take privacy very seriously. Street View only features imagery taken on public property and is not real time. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street." – Stephen Chau, project manager
Critic says: “There is a serious tension here between the concepts of free speech and open information, and the idea of privacy. "There's definitely a privacy concern that an unmarked Google camera van can, and in fact has, captured images of people . . . in a manner that could be embarrassing or even dangerous to them. . . . They've done something that's really irresponsible and rude.” – Kevin Bankston, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney
Professor says: “The bottom line is, you are fair game if you are in public. If it's just a random snapshot of one moment in a person's life, I think that's something we've got to put up with.” -- Christopher Slobogin, University of Florida law professor
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