Sunday, 13 July 2008

Are Google's street views a burglar's charter?

By Jenny McCartney

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 13/07/2008

In George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the hero, Winston Smith, starts out by hating Big Brother, and ends up - in a moment of terrible capitulation - by loving him. My own relationship with Google, the trusted computer search engine, is travelling in the opposite direction.

Recently it emerged that Google vehicles are even now circling Britain, filming views of every single street for publication on its new StreetView site.

This innovation will render any given front door in, say, Grimsby, immediately visible to a viewer in Gdansk, prompting howls of outrage from those who say it is a "burglar's charter".

Unfortunately, they might well be right. Of course, the information on the situation of houses was technically available to burglars already, in the same way that the entire lyrics of Van Morrison were available to me, should I have wished to expend unavailable time and energy on tracking them down.

But I never did, and now the joy of googling means that they are instantly available at the click of a mouse, precisely as a close-up of the front of my flat soon will be to any bored burglar.

We should never underestimate the power of sloth as an inhibitor to investigation. Of course burglars are lazy, because otherwise they would have a proper job with longer hours. By making the dreary nitty-gritty of a burglar's work that much easier, however, we will encourage him to pursue the job in record time: Google, take a bow.

Google is committed to making the unknown knowable, and shrinking the entire world to the portable size of a laptop computer.

The literary character it chiefly resembles is not in fact Orwell's Big Brother, but Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles, that charmingly urbane devil who persuaded credulous Dr Faustus to swap his soul for all knowledge and a seductive spin around the world "of profit and delight".

  • Yet there was a payback, as Faustus soon discovered. As we blithely tap away on our little keyboards in perpetual search of wisdom and entertainment, Google is silently keeping the closest of tabs on us.

    Every single search that we perform using the Google engine is tracked, logged, analysed and archived by the company for 18 months, before it is finally rendered anonymous.

    Why the deuce are they keeping it, squatting on the burgeoning minutiae of our daily quests? I don't know. I suppose they are working out how to use it to sell us more things, things that they believe we are predisposed to like.

    It's a bit creepy, like suddenly finding that a stranger is following you round the supermarket on rubber-soled shoes, making a list of everything you buy.

    That is, of course, exactly what happens if you shop online: at the electronic checkout, a little query appends the worried words "Have you forgotten?" to a list of the things you bought last time. And, after an initial burst of annoyance at the fact that life has come to a pretty pass when I am being actively nagged by a computer, I click a few extras into my online trolley. The intrusion, you see, works.

    Increasingly, like some dullard awakening from a long torpor, I am becoming aware of just how much interest strangers have in me, and not for any flattering reason.

    It emerged last week that councils are to be banned from selling the details of their electoral roll to junk mail companies. I didn't even know that they did that, although I thought it was a bit spooky when I moved house and - after a decorous interval - all the postal detritus that clogged up my old flat started following me here too.

  • Those ghastly hypocrites at the council, I thought, always lecturing us on parking and recycling and then blithely flogging off evidence of our existence so that people we don't know can torment us to buy things we don't need.

  • But we can be sure that where councils are compelled to leave off, companies, banks, government and Google will take over, silently remarking on and hoarding evidence of our passing interest in everything from garden rakes to plane flights. They will store both acutely sensitive and relatively meaningless information on us and then, at intervals, they will sloppily mislay it.

    This is the future, and we ourselves will sleepily collude in rendering privacy a hollow shell. It's just as well, I suppose, that Google's current company motto is "Don't be evil". What a pity for us all if it ever changed.

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