In Israel Google Street View needs serious thought

Source: Andre Oboler, In Israel Google Street View needs serious thought, Jerusalem Post Blogs, Feb 20, 2011

Google would like to launch Street View in Israel. The web based application adds an extra level of depth to Google Maps. People can zoom in and see what the street actually looks like to passersby. Google uses roving vehicles that drive down the street taking millions of digital photographs to collect the necessary data.  Street view pieces these together along with controls that allow users to step down the street, or turn their view to different angles. Want the red house with the blue door? Google street view has it covered.

Street view also comes with draw backs in the areas of privacy and security. Cars, people, and security measures are all captured. Street view is like having a team of surveillance personal who can immediately send you photographs of any location. The real difference is that they pull these photographs from their archive rather than taking them live. Another difference is that under pressure from privacy regulators, Google added technology to blur faces, license plates and other details identifying people and companies who have been photographed.

Photography has posed problems for Israel before. Three years ago I wrote “Let’s not give away all out secrets on the web.” The issue then was Facebook use by IDF soldiers who were taking pictures on base and in the field. These photographs had the potential to compromise security, but I urged the IDF not to go overboard. Instead, I suggested the flow of information could be managed using existing structures. That approach is not available here as Google itself takes the images.

Street view could be very useful in public spaces, parks, museums, hotels and places of historical, cultural, and religious interest. It could significantly help tourism. A street view of the old city in particular could prove very popular.  However, concerns about security in a small number of places, and about privacy in a far larger set of localities, suggest blanket permission would be unwise. Given its connection to Google maps, an edge to edge coverage is not needed. Google could easily provide street view only in front of designated locations of interest where permission has been specifically granted and if needed, where a risk assessment has already taken place.

Israel has specific needs, but the wider international concerns with street view should also be considered. These start with the ability of people to be easily removed. The original requirements were bordering on the comical, but they have improved. We still need to ask if they have improved enough, and whether Google can promise swift compliance with removal requests.

Gated communities, kibbutzim, and villages for new immigrants in particular should have a right to keep out the street view car, or to invite it in. The default should be exclusion until the local community give permission. This need is not unique to Israel, but it may have special implications. In the UK village of Broughton an angry crowd surrounded the street view car preventing its work. A spate of burglaries had residents concerned that appearing on Google Street View could attract further problem. (The article about this incident in The Sunday Times may of course have led to the same result, unless you assume thieves don’t read The Sunday Times).

Google street view cars have also been found collecting and storing data from open wireless networks in addition to taking pictures. This data was not just related to the location of open (non password protected) wireless networks, but also included payload data. In Ireland Google was forced to delete this data. What data could be collected in Israel, and how might this harm Israel? Both public diplomacy and security considerations need to be considered. How might this data be used against Israel’s interests, particularly if it is stored in the US and subject to US government control rather than Israeli control? Keeping the data solely in Israel would be a significant development.

The basic disconnect between our assumption of privacy and the concept of street view should also be considered. Segments of the online world have found the irony of stalking the Google Street View car irresistible. Bonus points apply if you can catch Google breaking the law. Of courseGoogle will also catch you catching Google breaking the law. Beneath the fun and games, discussion in the tech savvy online community are ripe with concerns about street view, Google’s potential use of the data, and the wider implications of online monitoring that is publically available. These ideas also need consideration, though culturally Israelis may be less concerned about privacy and surveillance, provided it is for a good cause and not simply a company’s profits. Street view may also have positive benefits for Israel’s security services (at the expense of civil liberties), the balance in Israel may be different to elsewhere in the world.

Privacy officials in Israel as well as Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom have already raised concerns about Google Street View and Google Buzz. They have criticized the roll out of technology before full consideration and protections have been put in place for the public. Yoram Hacohen, head of the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority signed the letter on behalf of Israel. When the new task force, headed by Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor meets, they may want to consultation with Mr Hacohen and see what role his authority could play in any future arrangements and what additional powers they may require. Some regulators overseas already have the ability to impose significant fines for privacy breaches.

Whatever issues the task force considers, they will not be an exhaustive list of the impact Street View could have on the lives of Israelis. Any permission to proceed with Google Street View should be coupled with both specific and general obligations on Google; for example, an obligation to collect and use data only in a manner consistent with the public interest, and an obligation to respect the rights of individuals. Keeping the data in Israel is the only way to ensure the Israeli courts can order enforcement. This may be a good first step.

Israel also has a responsibility to act in the Interests of its people and of the Jewish people more generally. In light of that, Israel may also request further unrelated guarantees from Google, such as an undertaking to cooperate more fully with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the fight against Antisemitism. The Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism, of which I am co-chair, came up with many recommendations for service providers like Google. Now might be the time to open that dialogue with Google directly. Google has been far better than Facebook when it comes to respecting the rights of democratic states, but that doesn’t Israel can’t negotiate and ensure its issues are given a higher priority by the internet giant as part of any new expansion.

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