Putting People’s Lives Online

Is that a man breaking into an apartment? There’s obviously a house on fire. The lady in this picture looks exactly like my nextdoor neighbor, and those are obviously my clothes drying in my backyard. Search a random location on Google Maps, and you may find—via the Street View feature—the most unexpected candid shots of people walking on the street, waiting for a bus, or even hanging out in places they may not want others to know about. Without doubt, Google Maps can be tremendously useful; combining traditional maps, information from the web, and innovative technology, the application is a helpful assistant for planning trips, locating businesses, and so on. However, Google Maps has been under fire since the introduction of the Street View feature, with many questioning whether a strict line has been unnecessarily crossed in the invasion of public privacy.
The biggest argument behind the dilemma is the collective sense of intrusion that has stimulated concerns of losing one’s privacy—parents are worried pictures of their children could possibly make them targets of child predators, and people visiting adult shops simply do not find it essential for the entire world to know where they went last Saturday afternoon. Although Google has so far attempted to ease public concern by blurring the faces of people, license plate numbers, and house numbers, it still is rather awkward to find, say, a good shot of your underclothes hanging on the clothesline and be informed about it by another person. The way Street View operates indeed creates a sense of insecurity; many critics erroneously believe that Street View resembles having a gigantic security camera capturing their every move without their consent or further, even without their being aware of it. Additionally, when collecting pictures for Street View, Google conceded that it violated privacy when it scooped up passwords, e-mail, and other personal information from unsuspecting computers as it drove through cities and neighborhoods.
The issues surrounding Google’s Street View highlight an even broader issue: With ever more (often very personal) data being stored, shared, and exchanged in the cloud, companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple effectively become the custodians of data that have the potential to ruin the lives of an untold number of people. Having access to vast amounts of data provides the potential of monetizing the data in some way.

1. What laws should govern how Facebook, Google, and other companies handle their customers’ online data? What should be the penalties of misuse?

2. How can a company balance the responsibility that comes with having access to the data with the responsibility toward the company’s shareholders to maximize profits?

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