Privacy issues not always practical

For the London Free Press - April 27, 2009 Read this on Canoe

Services that take continuous photographs along public streets raise privacy issues.

Google Street View is the most popular, but by no means the only company doing that.

While these privacy issues are real, we must remain practical about their application of such technology. It can sometimes be a struggle to rationalize new technology with privacy concerns.

On the one hand, we don't want to stifle new and useful technologies based on privacy concerns. On the other hand, creeping intrusions into privacy as time goes by can desensitize us to the issue.

The privacy commissioners for Canada, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec recently published a fact sheet titled Captured on Camera outlining their position on street level imaging.

Their position is that consent is required for companies to take the images in the first place. They state that the companies must let the citizens know when and why they will be photographing streets of particular cities.

They also desire the companies to blur faces and licence plates so individuals cannot be identified. And they are not keen on the companies keeping the original unblurred images in their databases.

Depending on the technology and other practical matters, it may not always be realistic to retain only blurred images in the provider's original databanks. While that is a laudable goal, the more practical approach, at least in the short term, may be to take steps to limit access to those original images and blur their presentation.

While it is reasonably clear that images of identifiable people on a street is personal information as defined in various legislation, it may not be so clear that licence plates are. It's not as if everyone has access to databases of licence plate numbers that allow anyone to identify who owns the vehicle.

And the privacy issues for a similar technology can be different depending on how the technology is used and the resulting services are sold.

For example, the privacy issues for companies like Google that make their images freely available to the public are somewhat different than companies like London's iLookabout, which provides its images only to customers such as municipalities for their own internal use.

In that situation the images are not available to the general public. It is also easier to deal with privacy issues contractually with its corporate customers.

Even though privacy legislation may require notice, either express or implied, before such images are taken, one has to question the practical efficacy of such notice. The fact sheet suggests things like visible markings on the photo capture vehicles, and notification to a variety of media, including press releases outlining dates and locations. They suggest people would be able to plan their day to avoid being photographed.

While that is fine in theory, the reality is that it would be very difficult and very expensive to give effective notice of the exact time and place when the photography is occurring.

In the U.K., a mob actually formed to prevent the photographing of a certain street. The reverse might also happen. People might seek out the camera cars in order to get intentionally photographed.