Ross Clark: Snapshots are not an issue of privacy

The author of a book on the surveillance society says we have far more important things to worry about than Google Street View

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If Google Street View was as powerful a tool of espionage as its critics make it out to be, internet-users would be able to pick up some very angry faces this weekend. They could zoom in on the home of Simon Davies of Privacy International, who says of Google: "Images are being captured without people's permission for commercial use, and we believe that it is not legally acceptable."

Or they could peer through the windows of a fuming Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, who accused the Government of being "out of its depth" in failing to stop Google putting the photographs online.

Actually, Street View is nothing like as useful as that. Take a Google-eye view around the 25 British towns and cities included so far and you may just, if you are lucky, spot someone being arrested (on a photo in Camden) or somebody walking blithely into a sex shop in Soho. More likely you will give up after half an hour or so, tired of the sight of wheelie bins and parked cars.

Google's photos do allow you to focus surprisingly closely on the windows of houses – at least on those which stand halfway down a street, where the pictures tend to be taken. But in the vast majority of cases all you see are net curtains or a black void – light levels inside a building are so much lower than those outside that images taken from the street are unlikely to pick out anything except for items on the window sill.

If I were a burglar, I don't think I would use Google Street View. The images are not live – they were taken at some indeterminate time within the past year – and so provide no opportunity for the reconnaissance of a property. Moreover, Google keeps a permanent record of all searches performed upon it – a dead giveaway if you are revealed to have been homing in on Acacia Avenue a few days before houses there were burgled.

Google invites individuals to complain if they feel their privacy has been invaded by particular shots. It has already removed, for example, the Soho sex shop image and other pictures where faces or car registration plates were not blurred. But no matter how many images it removes, Google will still attract anger. For a small and highly vocal band of privacy campaigners, the very presence of cameras on the streets is a sign of dark conspiracy.

When I set out to investigate the issue of surveillance for a book, I tried to get excited about the privacy issue surrounding CCTV cameras. But I failed. Every time I venture into a public place, surely I must accept that I will be seen: whether it is on camera or by the naked eye of a policeman seems of little consequence. The real case against CCTV is that these very expensive systems simply do not work effectively. In eight out of 10 cases, according to the Home Office's own figures, the images are too blurred to be of any use. In the remaining 20 per cent of cases the images are often of questionable use: what is the point of capturing a brilliant image of a hoody-encased criminal fleeing several hours after he has committed the crime? It would be far better if much of the money spent on CCTV were instead used to maintain a high police presence in areas where trouble can be expected, such as in town centres at pub closing time.

I can understand that Simon Davies feels miffed he is not getting a share of Google's profits for having his home appear on its website, but there is no law that the Government could pass to stop Google taking pictures which would not also trap ordinary citizens using their cameras. When you go to Trafalgar Square to take your family snaps, would you really want to have to go and first ask permission from everyone who might possibly appear in the background? If Google were banned from taking photographs in the street, so too would be newspapers and publishers of tourist brochures, who have been doing this freely for decades.

While privacy campaigners obsess about CCTV and Google images, they distract attention from the genuine surveillance abuses. It was only last week that the Government finally decided to clamp down on the disgraceful practice whereby the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre sells the home addresses of motorists to cowboy clamping firms for £2.50 a time. The practice has enabled thugs to entrap motorists and then pursue them with bailiffs.

There is the proposed children's database which could make the health and education records, as well as addresses, of every child available to thousands of public sector workers without them having to give a reason why they want the information. Surely it must occur to the Government that there will be paedophiles and other criminals with access to this information. Then, of course, are the ID card proposals, which will force Britons to pay £100 for a card of questionable value.

These are all issues which deserve to arouse the ire of free citizens. As for Google's Street View, think of it as a way to satisfy your curiosity as to what Scunthorpe is like without the trouble and expense of having to go there. In fact, for paranoiacs it could be an aid to privacy: they can now travel the country from their back bedrooms without having to show their faces in public again.

Ross Clark is the author of The Road to Southend Pier: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society

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