Google Street View Decision Shows Limits Of UK's ICO

The decision by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to let Google free to operate its controversial Street View online service is one more nail in the coffin of the concept of individual privacy.

More than a decade ago, Scott McNealy, the then CEO of Sun Microsystems (which has since been purchased by Oracle) famously said that "Privacy is dead, get over it". Google was still at en embryonic stage back then in the minds of its two co-founders.

Yet the ICO decision shows how societal attitudes have changed over the last decade. The entity, whose role is to regulate and enforce the access to and the use of personal information in the UK, appeared to be powerless to stop a foreign company like Google to come and take millions pictures freely.

Commenting on its decision, the ICO said that there is a relatively small risk of privacy detriment arguing that people already tweet, blog and Facebook. The ICO, we reckon, got the wrong end of the argument, especially when it compared GSV to people being captured by cameras or filmed during live sporting events.

There are a few critical differences between the two cases in the analogy provided by the ICO. People going at a football match are fully aware that they could be on television. The same can't be said about someone moving her flower pots in her back garden.

Google has systematically photographed tens of thousands of buildings and people which would be equivalent to, in a live football match, having cameras shooting everyone in the stadium. And as for others twittering, blogging and facebooking, well, those services give a granular control to their users to allow or reject visitors or friends.

Last and possibly more critical, Google has created a platform that will give the opportunity to millions to browse through the pictures at leisure forever. Don't get me wrong, I strongly believe that Google Street View is a fantastic tool but its introduction, like many ground-breaking ones, gives rise to new questions and fears.

It is therefore not surprising that some privacy activists like Privacy International are pressing politicians to investigate and reform the ICO.