Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Privacy and the home Google Street View continues to expose the fact that we haven't done our thinking about the changing nature of privacy. On Wednesday, residents in the village of Broughton, near Milton Keynes (described by the Mail, which doesn't like to burden its readers with accuracy, as being in Cambridgeshire) blocked the passage of a Google Street View car and persuaded the driver to turn around. Ah the playful rebelliousness of middle England. The Times has them as a 'village mob'. There's an account here that is altogether more placid. In the Beeb's report, one of the protesters said: "If they were simply going to view the street as a street scene rather than drive almost into people's drives and take pictures of the houses - I think that's a different issue." Almost into people's drives? That would be like what we call 'going past' then, would it? The Mail managed somehow, don't ask me, to raise the possibility that 'it's an invitation for burglars to strike': "I don't mind estate agents taking pictures but this shows people how to get in and how to get out." Getting out as well as getting in? I didn't realise there was so much detail. But don't we need to get beyond the petty mindedness of the property-obsessed, to reflect on how the house-as-home remains central to our understanding of notions of privacy, even while that privacy has been reshaped by other forces around e.g. data, citizenship and broadcast media? The excitable defensiveness of wealthy home-owners is not enough to convince me that I have a fundamental, irrevocable human right to stop people looking in my windows. As I recall, Witold Rybczynski's book Home is a good start for understanding how very recent the idea of the private home is in human history. The privacy part of it may already be in decline - not because the notion of 'home' has changed necessarily, but because the notion of privacy is changing. There are other confusions, such as discussing Street View with reference to the high number of CCTV cameras we have in this country (about 20% of the world's total, I heard recently). But as one comment here notes, There is a big difference between cctv and streetview for example, number of violent crimes caught on street view isn't quite as high. It's privacy invasion for the sake of privacy invasion. But that's my point - what do we mean, 'privacy invasion'? Where's the public debate that gets us away from knee-jerk insistence on a vague sense of interference and the self-righteous defence of property? I can't say I'm particularly bothered about Street View, and the notion of there being people who might describe themselves as 'Street View Enthusiasts' is just depressing. But it's more depressing to have people getting pompously worked up about keeping others away from where they live. If having lots of stuff gets you so fussed about losing it, maybe don't have so much stuff. And if I find myself feeling...

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