Publicizing Privacy Threats, Real and Imagined

“There is no such thing as bad publicity” goes the old adage, but sometimes casting the glare of publicity on non-issues can obscure real and pressing issues from public view. So it is with Senator Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) comments yesterday over the threat to privacy posed by online mapping technologies such as Google Maps, Microsoft’s Bing Maps, and Apple’s forthcoming iOS Maps. “Sunbathing in your backyard shouldn’t be a public event” said Schumer in a press release which raised the specter of Google, Microsoft, and Apple using “military-grade technology” to capture aerial photos for their next-generation mapping services.  

The problem with Sen. Schumer’s remarks, as with the ongoing furor over Google Street View, is that they focus an inordinate amount of media and public attention on what in the scheme of things is a very minor threat to privacy. It is true that in the early days of Google Street View, some individuals were the subject of unwelcome attention when they were photographed in places they would rather not be seen in public. But not only has this problem been solved by Google’s practice of blurring faces and license plates, but the only information that was revealed about a person in the pre-blurring days was that the person was present at a specific location at the time the Google Street View car drove by. What is more, any person incidentally photographed by Google remained anonymous until someone who knew them happened to spot them in Street View, or the photograph went viral for some reason.

Consider, by contrast, the threat to privacy posed by the vast surveillance networks that are designed to track every aspect of our online and off-line lives. Most people do not even know that it is even possible for advertisers to track every website they visit online, or for retailers to determine our wealth, political persuasion, or pregnancy status from the products we buy. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an excellent piece on how companies like Acxiom are combining both streams of data in order to paint exquisitely detailed pictures about every aspect of our lives. These technologies pose the real threat to privacy in our online age, but they do not get the attention they deserve because of the continuing media and political fixation on the remote possibility that you might be incidentally photographed by a technology that has specifically been designed to blur out your face from such pictures!

The cause of improving online and offline privacy protections would be better served by individuals like Sen. Schumer using their considerable influence to highlight new and emerging privacy threats, rather than conjuring the ghosts of privacy problems past.


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