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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Google’s Vint Cerf on Privacy

A Google employee once said, “Privacy is taken very, very, very seriously here (...) It’s also pretty drummed in to our heads that this wouldn’t even be something to joke about internally.” Every now and then though, Google employees do joke about this topic, perhaps to get a point across. In May this year, Google evangelist Vint Cerf at the Technology Alliance’s annual lunch meeting in a reportedly “intentionally flippant” way said “Nothing you do ever goes away, and nothing you do ever escapes notice (...) There isn’t any privacy, get over it.” Vint Cerf explains to us what he tried to say with that statement:

It was intended to be partly in jest and partly irony. I was reflecting on how long stuff stays around on the Internet and how often you or others find things you have long forgotten but that have a life on some web site or file server that happens to have either been indexed itself or perhaps a pointer to the particular object (document, image, file, video) has been captured along with nearby text that makes it common for a search engine to associate the text with a local image (even if the two are actually unrelated). Of course, my comment could not go into such a level of detail but I was trying to suggest that we really have entered a period when things are a lot less private. Think of the ease with which photos and videos can be taken, digitized, shipped around on the Internet, posted on YouTube or its equivalent. We are walking, talking recording and broadcasting systems. Once the costs of such capability have become incidental, it seems like everything becomes a part of this gigantic recording system. People often cite statistics about how many video cameras capture your movements in London daily, for example.

In other recent news, Google lawyers made a statement filed to a court in defense of a Pennsylvania couple suing them for allegedly privacy-invading photos which appeared on Google Maps Street View. From the statement:

According to Plaintifs ... Google’s driver traveled down a “private road” and on the right of way Plaintiffs use as a driveway, took unremarkable photos of the exterior of their home (...)

Plaintiffs’ claims have no merit. Plaintiffs’ privacy claims fail, among other reasons, because the view of a home from the driveway that can be seen by any visitor, delivery person or telephone repairman is not private. As recognized by the Restatement,

[c]omplete privacy does not exist in this world except in a desert, and anyone who is not a hermit must except and endure the ordinary incidents of the community life of which he [or she] is a part.

What’s private and what is not will remain an issue of debate in the future as tools make information more and more accessible. In 2005, when CNet reporter Elinor Mills used Google to access public sources to research the background of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Google’s response was to tell CNet they’d be blacklisted from receiving communication for a year... due to privacy issues with that report.

[Thanks Bobbie7, Stephen and Vint!]


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