June 12, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Are Google's moves creeping you out?
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"The reality is, it can expect much more of this type of treatment as it continues to monitor much of what we do" and accelerates its efforts at personalization, Sullivan wrote. "To save itself, I'd like to see Google appoint a privacy czar, someone charged with...assuming the worst about the company and diligently working to ensure users have as much protection as possible."
While Google doesn't have an official privacy czar, it has an associate general counsel for ethics and compliance, and 14 staff lawyers who serve as product counsel, supporting the development of products from inception to launch and reviewing them for privacy issues, Wong said. "We ask at the very start of the design of a product, what kind of information are you thinking of collecting, and what are you going to do with it?"
Before releasing the street-level map view, Google reached out to domestic-violence organizations, she said. "With Street View, we gave a lot of thought to what the privacy consequences would be. We built a flagging mechanism in it so users could report inappropriate images," she said. "In the first few days after launch, we had a very small number of flags. That rate is decreasing every day."
Google executives and product managers had numerous discussions about the privacy and ethical implications of the product before releasing it, Wong added. "We tried to balance offering a strong, useful product for users with the privacy implications of it," she said.
The company's vision with the service was to "put people in touch with what a street looks like, (to) get something more realistic and helpful to me than lines drawn on a street map," Wong said. The street-level view is helpful for looking at a city before going on vacation, viewing a neighborhood before purchasing a house and serving as an additional visual aid for driving directions, she said.
While it certainly does that, "it's a trade-off," said Christopher Slobogin, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. "A lot of people want this stuff. They don't mind giving up a little bit of privacy to be able to get it."
Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, is one of them.
"I don't want to trivialize it, but I also don't think it should be blown out of proportion. It raises some interesting questions, but at the end of the day, it's not the kind of thing that leaves me sleepless at night or leaves me outraged," Solove said. "Google could be a little bit more careful about what they're doing, but I've seen much, much worse."
But what is seen as a helpful online tool to one person can feel too close for comfort to someone whose face, license plate or comings and goings end up displayed on Google Maps.
"It used to be (that) your divorce records were public but sitting in a courthouse. Now they're on the Web. Your house used to be visible on the street; now it's visible from anywhere on the planet," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Internet security firm BT Counterpane, who has written extensively about privacy and security.
"Now it's on the Web, and anybody can see it forever, and that's just different," he said. "There are some very deeply philosophical privacy concerns that we, as a society, need to address."
Ultimately, Schneier, Wong and the legal experts agreed that laws should be updated to address the issues that technology advancements raise. New inventions have always driven privacy legislation. For instance, the advent of photography and the widespread circulation of newspapers in the late 1800s led to the first laws protecting privacy between individuals in the United States, said Ken Gormley, professor of constitutional law at Duquesne University.
"It's the kind of thing state legislators have to grapple with," Gormley said. Meanwhile, constitutional protections cover government intrusions of citizens' privacy.
"The bottom line is, you are fair game if you are in public," Slobogin said. "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."
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