This is a place for me to ruminate about Privacy. Since I work as Google's Global Privacy Counsel, I need to point out that these ruminations are mine, not Google's. Please don't attribute them to Google.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Watching people walk down the street
It's just snowed in Paris, and I'm looking out my window, watching the children and the dogs play. Almost everyone walking down avenue Foch seems to be speaking on a cell phone. I doubt many of them are thinking about how their location data is being captured, stored or used.
EU countries began passing the Data Retention laws mandated by a European Directive. That means that massive databases of communications logs will now be collected and stored by communications service providers across Europe for 6 months to 2 years, for police and law enforcement purposes (France, for example, chose 12 months). This is the largest police surveillance database ever mandated in the history of humanity to date. The year ahead will define how all this is going to work in practice: who will be able to access them, for what purposes, under what controls, how should this work in a cross-border context, etc. Will other countries follow Europe down this path? For most people, I imagine, the most sensitive aspect of this is the idea that their physical movements can be tracked by the police over long periods of time.
But the mobile revolution is just starting. Think for a moment about the intersection of mobile and face recognition software. For some years, in small controlled contexts, the police have already been using face recognition software to find individuals in a crowd. Online photo albums already offer some face recognition software in the contexts of particular albums, or in the contexts of social networking sites: take a look at face.com. But reflect on the prospect of face recognition software that could be used from any Internet-connected smart phone that can photograph a face and return instant search results. Google already announced the launch of Goggles without face recognition and acknowledged the privacy concerns in applying similar technologies to identifiable human faces. There's a lot of work to do to think through the privacy design of image recognition software applied to faces. The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.
The web is going mobile, and as Internet apps go mobile too, location-aware services will explode in 2010 and beyond. That means that location data will be captured and used. Location privacy will become a key new issue in the mainstream in the year ahead. It's been around for years in cell phones, of course, but the issues will grow exponentially in the age of proliferating third-party location aware apps. It's one thing for you to know (or be dimly aware) that your cell phone company knows where you are based on your cell phone's location, it's quite another to have a plethora of third-party apps know that too.
Mobile is where the next generation of tough privacy issues will come, I muse, as I watch people walk down a Paris street that hasn't changed much in a hundred years.