Blown To Bits

Is your front yard private?

Sunday, April 6th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

If you use Google Maps to get directions to where I live, you can get what Google calls a Street View, a clear picture of my house. You can’t see in my windows, but you can see my run-down car parked in the driveway. Were it not for the fact that the setting sun caused glare in the camera lens, you could read my license plate. The Google filming crew plainly did me a favor by coming by on a day when the lawn happened to have been cut. The place doesn’t usually look that nice.

Try typing in your own address. Street View covers only a few cities, so your place may not be Street Viewable. Yet.

In the book, we say that things that have always been public are now VERY public. Google isn’t showing the world anything it hasn’t always been possible to see from the street. It is, as they say, a Street View. It’s just that everybody in Tajikistan with an Internet connection can now see the same things that people driving down my street have always been able to see. The Boston Globe reports that a couple living in a Pittsburgh suburb is suing Google to stop this invasion of privacy. Maybe they have a stronger case than you or I would have. They say the driveway from which the photos must have been taken is labeled “Private Road,” so Google’s truck should not have been on it. Or maybe their privacy case is not so strong. The county real estate web site also has a photo of their house, and lots of others, which anyone can view.

We mean two things by our title, Blown to Bits. First, that vast quantities of information have been digitized and spread suddenly to everyone, thanks to the wonders of modern electronics, such as digital cameras and the Internet. And second, that our understanding of familiar concepts, such as privacy, have taken a jolt as a result. There is no consensus on how old laws and conventions apply, or how they need to change.

Like it or not, the digital explosion has consequences that are being worked out right now. The way the world will work in the future is being determined by decisions being taken right now.

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