Theres a saying about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. This popped into my mind last week when I saw a BBC story about people in the UK village of Broughton, Milton Keynes who attempted to stop Google from scanning their streets.
The Google Street View mapping project provides 360-degree views of roads and homes using footage taken by a camera mounted on a car and Google claims its a very useful service used by millions. But, when they saw the car in their streets, the good villagers of Broughton complained that their privacy was being invaded and that Google was taking a tremendous liberty.
Of course, Google was taking pictures from a public street which is perfectly legal. Their spokesperson was also quoted as saying the system contained "simple tools" which allowed people to remove images of their house.
This raises the important issue of how technology has eroded personal privacy in this 21st century. My view is that the good villagers of Broughton are fighting a fight that was lost long ago. In any city of the world today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of security cameras filming the movements of anyone in a public space. The upcoming generations think nothing of listing all their personal particulars on social networking sites such as MySpace, FriendWise, FriendFinder, Yahoo! 360, Facebook, Orkut, and Classmates.
There are vast databases listing everyones credit rating, transactions, financial details and more. These are easily available to those who know how to access them. Head-hunting firms and enterprises wanting to check job applicants, now routinely scan such networking sites to check the backgrounds of potential employees.
Enterprises encourage people to do transactions over the Internet, but security experts have serious questions about data protection and there is a thriving black hat industry dealing in stolen identities and credit card information. Anyone who has done anything on the Internet can be found through clever searching of the Web.
The whole of western society has converted to digital information and many citizens appear happy to divulge personal details to anyone who is interested. And yet, Broughton villagers, who, from the television coverage I saw, were mostly well-to-do upper income types, are worried about Google taking pictures of their street. Some said the Google service could be used by burglars to rob their homes. Such techno-xenophobia really seems a blast from 30 years past.
Living in Singapore, I find it hard to imagine that theres any part of this Lion City that hasnt been well and truly scanned. Nevertheless, it always disturbs me somehow when telephone operators use my name before I even introduce myself. I think citizens of the western world lost the privacy battle several decades ago, and it is now impossible to put the genie back into the bottle. Yes, the benefits of technology are vast. Perhaps our lost privacy is the price we have paid.
Ross O. Storey, currently the Managing Editor of Fairfax Business Media Asia, is responsible for the editorial content and production of MIS Asia, CIO Asia, Computerworld Singapore and Computerworld Malaysia magazines.
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