Tuesday, March 31st, 2009
There’s been a bit of a furore recently about Google’s Street View, which has now come to selected cities in the UK. When it was launched a number of images had to be removed because they showed people in situations that could be potentially embarrassing or which people said invaded their privacy. There was the ambulance crew; the man coming out of a sex shop; the rock star enjoying a pint at his local. Complaints ensued and Google took down the images.
I am slightly perplexed as to why this kerfuffle happened at all. Google had a similar reaction when it launched in the US in May last year, and its face-blurring policy is a result of that pushback. Surely it was ready for a fuss to be made here? Especially as Privacy International pre-emptively threatened them with legal action last July. (PI kept its word and complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office.)
I think Google could have prevented a lot of this bad press by removing suspect images prior to launching the tool. Computers are really bad at figuring out what’s in an image, and even though face recognition software improves every year, a computer cannot make a judgement on whether that face is in a compromising position or not. But humans can, and there are millions of humans online who are not only capable of spotting an obviously unsuitable photo at a glance, but also willing to do so if it’s made easy enough for them.
Google could have put together a Galaxy Zoo-like tool to allow volunteers to assess each photo, after the face-blurring, but before it was accepted into their database. If Galaxy Zoo can find a few tens of thousands of people to check pictures of galaxies, Google can find a couple of million to check Street View photos.
I suppose some people would complain that even if you showed a compromising photo to just three people - which is all it takes to pass reliable judgement on an image - that’s three people too many. But I don’t believe that’s a reasonable stance to take. If you are in a public place then why should you have an expectation of privacy? My dad was once filmed getting off a train at Reading station, and for years afterwards his face showed up on every news story about trains. We have to accept that when we are in public places our image may be captured and may sometimes turn up online, or even on TV.
In my opinion, Google should have assessed the photos prior to publication because it’s good customer care. Google isn’t perfect, but if it has a fault, it’s that it often seems to lack a human dimension, using computer engineering to try and solve what are often human problems. The question of Street View isn’t, to my mind, a privacy question as much as it is a simple issue of empathy. Even the PR angle, really, is secondary, a side-effect to caring/not caring about the people around you. Would there have been as much bad press about Street View if Google had cleaned out any potentially embarrassing photos prior to launch?