thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Thursday, September 21, 2006

At which image resolution does your privacy begin?

Private satellite imagery has been lauded as a counter-balancing force to intelligence agencies' secret knowledge. John Pike from has used it for years to debunk e.g. the myth of North Korea having their intercontinental missiles ready (as he could show, the tracks in the alledged launching base were not even paved). Before Google Earth went online and basically took over the market, similar products had already been developed, even as small handheld gadgets. This has not made everyone equally happy. The Indian military had a public discussion about the dangers of Google Earth's imagery intelligence, and others surely are doing the same behind the scenes.

But this is not just about national security installations. It is about you and me, too, who are being watched from above now - with a new twist. While it is one thing to be seen on a street (a surveillance camera still has a much better resolution than a photo satellite), it is another thing to be photographed on your private premises. In Germany, a recent constitutional court decision made clear that it's illegal for reporters to fly over the houses of famous people and take air photos from helicopters. The pictures can not be published, as the right to privacy overrides free speech. This in fact brings us back to the origins of the "right to privacy" in the famous 1890 article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, which was prompted by pictures taken by reporters.

If you're not a celebrity, you don't have to fear the paparazzi. But if you want to be alone on your rooftop or in your fence-shielded garden, you now might have to fear your neighbors who have Google Earth helping them. Google sightseeing just found this picture of a woman sunbathing topless on a rooftop. You can not tell the face (yet), but if you know which address it is, it can be easy to find out who this is. This is not just about the picture itself (you get high-resolution pics of topless women all over the net), but about the information it contains: There is a topless person on this specific rooftop - welcome peeping toms!

So, where does your privacy zone begin? When your face can be identified? Or much earlier? And how do we do enforcement of national privacy laws in cyberspace and outer space? Google Earth is using pictures from the American "Keyhole" satellites, and the pictures are stored on a server in the United States. Should they have to block these pictures to German visitors, as they do with government-critical content in Chinese? Or should Google reduce the resolution in general? How do you do sunbathing with a canvas cover?

Oliver Morton wrote about this new development for Wired Magazine as early as six years ago, and his conclusion was:
"Watch for the next big First Amendment battle over who can see what. And if you look up, smile."
Or would you rather give them the finger? I myself prefer the First Amedment battle.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought you Europeans were supposed to be so much more civilized about nudity than we barbaric Americans. My follow-up to your post is here.

23/9/06 00:01

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where's Amanda?

14/1/07 02:04


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