Public Roads Are Not Private Places
I was struck by this passage, from a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, about Google’s Street View:
The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Commission in 2008 both concluded that Street View didn’t breach any privacy or security rules, and it was on that basis that the company went ahead with the project in the UK. (Street View has also been launched in France, but since it’s illegal under French law to publish photographs of private citizens without their permission, I have no idea how they’ve got away with it.) It’s difficult to say exactly why Street View seems to be crossing a line: after all, people’s addresses are freely available via the electoral register. Adding a photo of someone’s house doesn’t compromise their privacy any further. So the sense of invaded privacy is finally hard to defend.
He also notes that how you feel about Street View is a function of one’s age:
It’s been causing some controversy since its launch here, and from the non-scientific sample tests I’ve been running, it constitutes a Rorschach test of people’s attitudes to privacy and modernity. Most people my age and older instinctively dislike it. There seems to be something fundamentally not right about total strangers on the other side of the planet being able to look at a picture of my house. Younger users don’t see the problem: but then their attitudes to privacy are hard to understand, across the digital generation gap. The briefest look at Facebook or MySpace or Twitter shows a fundamental shift in how guarded people are about their private information: the younger generation really doesn’t seem to care.
But I was curious about this concept in light of the supposed debate over red-light cameras and the like, one aspect of which is said to be “privacy.” But just as it is acceptable for Google to send its cars down public streets to take pictures of those streets, and whatever happens to be occurring at that time, I see no reason why it is not acceptable for law-enforcement to photograph cars using that street in an illegal fashion.
As the IIHS puts it, “Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals. Neither the law nor common sense suggests drivers should not be observed on the road or have their violations documented. Red light camera systems can be designed to photograph only a vehicle’s rear license plate, not vehicle occupants, depending on local law. Only vehicles driven by motorists who violate the law are photographed.”
The only real difference I can see between a speed camera and a police officer holding a radar gun is that the latter will capture many fewer violators. We can also reframe the issue from the point of view of the potential victim of a traffic law violator — how has one person’s “privacy” infringed upon their rights?
This entry was posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 3:25 pm and is filed under Roads, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.