Is Google evil?
Is your answer an unequivocal: ‘No – don’t be silly’? Is your answer the same as it would have been five years ago?
My answer is ‘no’. But let me ask a different question. Do you think Google is capable of being underhand, disingenuous or equivocal about public privacy? I have developed the view that they are. My take is that I could probably just about stomach it if they were upfront, but they’re not.
I am quite passionately a disbeliever in conspiracy theories – whether they relate to Princess Diana, Roswell or Elvis. These are things people want to believe in so they do. The psychological ‘need to believe’ is well researched and well-understood.
However, when it turned out that the Google StreetView cars had been collecting the dubiously named ‘payload data’ (information gleaned from people’s wireless routers as the StreetView cars passed houses) and were equivocal about what they had done with it, leading to the UK ICO having to post them a published question on the subject. I felt put on alert about what Google said and what they actually did.
This is why I have another question for the ICO to ask Google about their StreetView cars: ‘Did you brief your StreetView drivers to trespass?
We live on a farm. We are not farmers, but we enjoy and suffer the nice things - no traffic, (well mostly no traffic – see below) and not so nice things - dust in the summer, mud in the winter - from living on a mile and half loop of largely unmade farm track that forms the only access to half a dozen properties.
Checking Google StreetView last summer, before to giving a visitor directions (every Satnav has a different view of where we actually are, but it’s not on a public road) I was horrified to see that since I last looked, the Google StreetView car had been back, and instead of turning back at the clearly marked (‘Private Road’) signs as it obviously had before. This time round it had traversed the full loop of private road and published the images on StreetView.
This gave me quite a lot of pause for thought – although I ought to say that my initial reactions weren’t very thoughtful, they were quite angry. Despite (in fact probably because of) a very rural location, the neighbourhood has been targeted by burglars after items like quad bikes and farm machinery (the former practically akin to an illicit currency in some parts of the countryside). This means keeping such items behind locked doors day and night.
So it was just my luck that when the Google SteetView car came trespassing up our drive, the shed was unlocked - and there it was - the inside of our shed in all its glory on Google.
Every now and then, a strange un-recognised vehicle gets clocked on the drive – more often than not a white van. The bush telegraph buzzes, phones ring, and eventually a call goes in to the local Farm Watch to explain that someone else has been out casing the joint. It looked like Google had just saved them the bother – now all they need to do is go online.
You can report the privacy issue to Google, but they sure make it difficult, obviously no chance of speaking to a human. Once you have Googled: ‘How to complain about StreetView’ and finally found the tiny ‘Report a problem’ link on StreetView images, you will be obliged to categorise your issue. Curiously, the list of issues under ‘Privacy Concerns’ doesn’t include ‘Trespass’.
I reported my concerns about 4 times across a 4 month period. Despite my providing an email address Google never replied.
During this time I investigated the legal side of Google trespassing. Quite rightly I think, UK law doesn’t get over-excited about plain trespass. It is not a criminal offence, and the remedy is basically removal. You can use reasonable force to remove a trespasser. Even if you take and publish a photo while trespassing, you will not be held actionable (as case law shows) for damages, as the law here believes you have not been caused any tangible damage. I think Google must have checked this out and understands it well; this is why they are deliberately trespassing. However, they can be asked to un-publish images taken while trespassing – as they eventually did in my case. This shows that you have a certain remedy under English law – but it seems not if the Google StreetView car is on the public highway where most people live. Bear in mind that both ends of our private track – which connect with the public road network, have large clearly visible: ‘Private Road, No Public Right of Way’ signs. Did the Google StreetView car driver (these cars do have drivers – for now, of course Google’s working on that) really not see – it would have been very difficult, and there are very few un made-up public roads in Britain?
Bad of Google? Well it gets worse. In an idle moment recently I decided to travel back in time and check out somewhere we used to live – in Northumberland this time. Yes – you guessed it – on a farm. And again up another private road about a mile long. So here’s StreetView. Oh, I remember, that’s where the drive had a double bend in it – and a sign saying ‘Private Drive’. ‘Hang on, why did the Google StreetView car go straight past it and on up to the farm?
Having lived in these type of locations, my experience is that these sort of signs are a deterrent to the lost or curious. The only people who drive straight past have legitimate business (delivery drivers etc.) and those with ill-intent, like burglars taking a look – and Google. I am personally pretty convinced that – after taking legal advice – Google has issued its drivers with specific instructions along the lines of: ‘Go anywhere and everywhere you physically can. Don’t’ worry about sticking to public rights of way, you and we cannot be prosecuted’.
I can see Google’s information strategy at work here. Like others I'm sure, I have felt quite a sense of resentment against the Ordnance Survey – who perhaps guarded their IP more jealously than any IP owner in Britain. Ever submitted a planning application? Every time you do you are obliged to buy the same map again at an extortionate price from the OS. Until about a year ago I felt that Google wouldn’t even try to challenge the OS for its UK map monopoly. However an unholy alliance between the OS and Microsoft (who use OS mapping for their Bing maps) and recent detailed updates to Google Maps showing for instance waterways, woods and UK National Parks reminds me that Google’s data appetite is basically insatiable. It’s not difficult to see what the benefits of sending the StreetView car simply everywhere you can might be.
I’m personally convinced that this is their policy. If it is they should tell us. We would know how to respond.
We would like to know, and so I think should the ICO.