–Obtuse essay by Tomek Brzezinski:
In the plainest sense, the liberal-democratic state is a fusion of individualistic and collectivistic philosophies. The liberalism train of thought contributes principles of individual free action, and the democracy element provides methods of fair and free group cooperation. However as two philosophical ideas with different historical origins, the rights of the individual and the goal of the collective are at times in conflict. In the spirit of a conversation about Google Earth, a program released by Google that offers in-depth free images of the world, the role of these independent philosophical ideas may not be clear. But controversy over a contested lack of privacy in Google Earth’s Streetview, a street-level photo collection of all public streets, can be understood as conflict of those two perspectives.
The relationship of political-philosophical context and your approach the privacy issue relates to existing Streetview privacy battles. In Germany, before allowing Streetview, citizens and government officials demanded more stringent privacy regulations in addition the implementation of a responsive tool to let citizens request places to be blurred (Segall, 2010, 7-8). In light of Germany’s history with the East Germany and overpowered government, a speculative claim could be made that Google Earth was being approached from the libertarian perspective. Through this perspective, Streetview, rather than being a tool to serve people, was seen as a tool that restricted personal domains of action. It was anti-freedom.
By contrast, when not thinking about dominating governments, Google Earth can be seen as a tool enabling free access to information. Streetview not only is a tool to travel to locations you’ve never seen before, but it even expands into the exhibits of some major museums. The idea of 500 people virtually looking at pictures of your home may be unnerving with the memory of oppressive regimes, but without any such expectations of abuse it can be countered that people are far more likely to be glancing at the White House, British Parliament, or museum paintings. For many reasons, those are experiences that could not have been had without the digital evolution of Streetview in Google Earth, whether because of time, cost, or disability. In this sense, an exclusion of those experiences would limit individual choices of action.
For more stringent definitions of privacy this may not be sufficient comfort; many would argue privacy is still at stake in a greater way. Given that Privacy is a fundamental human right recognized by the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Banisar, 1), among other international treaties, this is an important concern. Privacy is an essential component of our modern freedom philosophy, and a lack of it suppresses our ability to freely act as individuals. There are numerous critiques of Streetview’s blanket surveillance of the public domain. Among other concerns, scholars cite the fact people will be less able to act freely under the perception of the potential for a Google Streetview van passing, the fact that there is limited control over the published information on Streetview, and the fact that Google Earth is more dangerous as a centralized collection of many photos (Segall, 2010, 1). This last idea points to the idea of street view privacy as a conflict of libertarian and democratic goals. Although as a private organization Google is not under the same scrutiny as government surveillance would be, Google is a powerful organization with the theoretical potential to control the substantial information about an individual. Streetview is a clearly visual, and powerful, element of that system. However, there hasn’t been any evidence relating Google Streetview to any shady concerted citizen surveillance projects (only minor publicized governmental use). To worry about the grander surveillance privacy implications of street view, which would hurt both the collective and individual, is worrying about the type of malicious actions Google has never been seriously implicated in.
Google’s engineers could be seen as hurting freedom and improving freedom. Whether we see Google Earth as bad or good will depend on how we approach our philosophy: with the individuality based hope of freedom from oppressive instruments, or the democratic based hope for free access to information and open ‘travel’ to destinations. The implications for individual freedom go both ways, and will continue to stay in conflict because of the fundamental boundary between considering collectivism and individuality. Instead of overemphasizing one view point or another, we can endeavor to evaluate the two in all aspects of life. If one wants to argue that Google’s Streetview transgresses individual liberty and autonomy, then they must be also aware that a lack of Streetview and other freely available information technology is another immediate and important affront to individual freedom. What really remains important for the future is the technological evolution of Google Streetview technology. Currently, the idea of Streetview as an institutional privacy threat is merely speculation, because it is not possible to effectively analyze outdated static images. But in the future, if greater computer technology and more up-to-date Streetview photos allowed easier analytical surveillance of individual actions, our patterns of movement and so forth, we would certainly be in more realistic trouble.
Segall, J.E. (2010). Google street view: walking the line of privacy- intrusion upon seclusion and publicity given to private facts in the digital age. University of Pittsburgh Journal of Technology Law & Policy,
Banisar, D. (n.d.). Privacy and human rights an international survey of privacy laws and practice . Retrieved from http://gilc.org/privacy/survey/intro.html