Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Erosion of the Private Garden

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 25, 2010 --  

The world's private areas are shrinking with the advance of information technology. People who value privacy must take responsibility for themselves.

When residents of Victorian London wanted to take tea in a private garden, they simply built walls along their property line. This same solution has been repeated the world over across many cultures. Walk the back streets of Marrakesh or Antigua, Guatemala and you will see nothing but blank walls. Only the odd open door will reveal lush private gardens and courtyards.

While the humble wall can provide privacy from the prying eyes of neighbors, it is often no match for modern technology. Consider Google Street View, the system that provides a 360 degree picture of any streetscape. Its recent controversy in Germany is hardly its first. Last May, Google was forced to re-shoot all of its Japanese footage because of complaints that cameras were high enough to peer over garden walls into private areas. Google agreed to lower its camera by 16 inches and start all over again.1

One year later, Google is under fire from Germany, where a criminal probe has been launched to investigate Google's recording of internet traffic from the very same Google Street View vehicles.2 Even before the revelation of data recording, Google had earned the ire of the authorities -- German officials say the law requires Google to obtain consent before publishing a picture of any person or their property.

This core assertion is a good example of European privacy laws that simply go too far. Outlawing the publication of street photos effectively tramples free speech for the sake of privacy. (Better not let German prosecutors see the online photo album from my trip to Berlin.) The German government is merely using its investigation of internet recording as a weapon to attack Google over the larger Street View issue.

To be clear, Google's recording of wireless internet traffic is not without good reason. Most wireless routers broadcast a unique identifier up to a block away, and recording their coordinates provides a simple way for mobile phones to find their location. Once Google publishes that "Wolfgang's WiFi Network" is in central Stuttgart, any mobile phone that detects this network knows it is also located in central Stuttgart. Pretty slick.

But there's a catch. If a careless Wolfgang fails to enable encryption on his router, passing Street View cars might also get a short snippet of his emails or web traffic. Never mind that Wolfgang was openly broadcasting his internet traffic for all the neighbors to hear -- under Germany's crazy privacy laws, Google's momentary recording is considered a criminal act.

Both the German and Japanese controversies provide case studies for what happens when old-fashioned ideas about privacy crumble in the face of new technology. Japanese garden walls may be high enough to block the eyes of both passing men and the lowered camera on the Google Street View cars, but they will never be high enough to block the satellites and airplanes that take pictures from above. And while Germany's crude laws may alter the behavior of corporate giants like Google, they will do little to stop neighboring hacker kids who are far more likely to intentionally eavesdrop on Wolfgang's internet surfing.

The reality is that privacy is not a right to be guaranteed by the government, but a fragile circumstance that requires constant vigilance of those who wish to retain it. If you want your garden to be private, it is your responsibility to build a wall and your responsibility to maintain it. Likewise, if you wish to keep your neighbors from knowing your business, it is up to you to speak in a hushed voice, and enable encryption on your WiFi router.

Similar logic applies to information people post on Facebook or other social networking sites. Such online spaces are not private gardens -- they are the public square. People must realize that anything they share in such places is, in effect, public information.

These problems are exacerbated by a generation gap. Younger people are both more likely to embrace new technologies and more comfortable with sharing personal details with a wider audience. The fact that so few people make the effort to adjust the default privacy settings on sites like Facebook -- let alone use more powerful privacy tools like encrypted email and anonymous proxy servers -- is proof that privacy is of limited concern to most internet users. Yet it is the loudmouth malingerers who get all the attention.

Clearly, rapidly developing information technologies have eroded the private spheres of the world. Walled gardens, both physical and virtual, simply aren't as private as they once were. Yet the core principles of privacy remain unchanged since the dawn of civilization. If you want to keep something secret, that is your responsibility. Stay inside. Speak softly. Or better yet, simply shut your mouth -- and don't go crying to the government if you fail to do so.

Related Web Columns:

The End of Privacy, January 8, 2002


1. BBC News, Street View Under Fire in Japan, May 14, 2009

2. New York Times, Germany Asks Google to Surrender Private Data, May 18, 2010