February 9, 2021

To explain privacy by the example of Google Streetview in Germany

Some non-germans find it strange that Germany is mostly a blank spot on the Streetview map. This is because Google gave up on us after being overwhelmed with blur requests. It's a privacy thing, but why are we so protective?

Go to a newsstand, buy a lifestyle magazine, flip through the pages and miss the obvious: while most manufacturers have a product image on the boxing, the cover girl of a news magazine is not featured in any of the articles (unless, she’s a celebrity). Seems strange when you begin think about it. They are advertising something, but then not following up on it. The girl, of course, is just a generic model. Hired by the publisher (or, more likely, a contractor) for her smile in order to sell more magazines. Good old sales psychology. There’s no follow up story to the picture. Never was, never will be. It’s just a random stock photo. You pay the publisher for a copy, the publisher pays royalties to the model’s agency, which in turn pays the model, who probably doesn’t even know (or care) where her face will show up later, as long as the money shows up in her bank account.

Models make their living by investing in their appearances, then charging for camera privileges. Anyone using the resulting (stock) photos without a license therefore causes damage and can expect to be sued for copyright infringement. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are typically less protective of their assets, as they either lack the means or desire to monetize. It does not follow from there that when someone does not make use of his property, others may do so instead (e.g. a magazine taking people’s picture or scraping their social media profiles for them without consent). Yet, this is basically what Streetview comes down to. A powerplay by Google, trying to cash in on a market for panorama pictures it created, based on image data it took without consent from the property owners.

Streetview means being taken advantage of. Something, germans don’t take kindly to. Besides not being asked for permission nor being offered compensation, Streetview raises a number of concerns for home owners:

  • Germany is a very bureaucratic country, with a history of mass surveillance being targeted at it’s citizens. Google is a search engine company with a research department dedicated to image recognition. Something might will be found in the image data that is not up to regulation and may result in a fine. This opens the path to a “speed trap abuse on steroids” kind of public private partnership.
  • As a scouting tool, the service is a dream come true for burglars.

And there we have it. Privacy means not sacrificing your personal safety for the benefit of someone else’s profit.