CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Public Roads Are Not Private Places

I was struck by this passage, from a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, about Google’s Street View:

The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Commission in 2008 both concluded that Street View didn’t breach any privacy or security rules, and it was on that basis that the company went ahead with the project in the UK. (Street View has also been launched in France, but since it’s illegal under French law to publish photographs of private citizens without their permission, I have no idea how they’ve got away with it.) It’s difficult to say exactly why Street View seems to be crossing a line: after all, people’s addresses are freely available via the electoral register. Adding a photo of someone’s house doesn’t compromise their privacy any further. So the sense of invaded privacy is finally hard to defend.

He also notes that how you feel about Street View is a function of one’s age:

It’s been causing some controversy since its launch here, and from the non-scientific sample tests I’ve been running, it constitutes a Rorschach test of people’s attitudes to privacy and modernity. Most people my age and older instinctively dislike it. There seems to be something fundamentally not right about total strangers on the other side of the planet being able to look at a picture of my house. Younger users don’t see the problem: but then their attitudes to privacy are hard to understand, across the digital generation gap. The briefest look at Facebook or MySpace or Twitter shows a fundamental shift in how guarded people are about their private information: the younger generation really doesn’t seem to care.

But I was curious about this concept in light of the supposed debate over red-light cameras and the like, one aspect of which is said to be “privacy.” But just as it is acceptable for Google to send its cars down public streets to take pictures of those streets, and whatever happens to be occurring at that time, I see no reason why it is not acceptable for law-enforcement to photograph cars using that street in an illegal fashion.

As the IIHS puts it, “Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals. Neither the law nor common sense suggests drivers should not be observed on the road or have their violations documented. Red light camera systems can be designed to photograph only a vehicle’s rear license plate, not vehicle occupants, depending on local law. Only vehicles driven by motorists who violate the law are photographed.”

The only real difference I can see between a speed camera and a police officer holding a radar gun is that the latter will capture many fewer violators. We can also reframe the issue from the point of view of the potential victim of a traffic law violator — how has one person’s “privacy” infringed upon their rights?

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 3:25 pm and is filed under Roads, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Public Roads Are Not Private Places”

  1. Michael Says:

    There is something odd about living in the surveillance camera capitol of the world and complaining about street view.

    I tend to think most motorists think of the traffic laws as some sort of quaint formality that has no practical relevance, like those no cursing on Sunday laws and whatnot. Actually catching and punishing violators seems like a terrible affront.

  2. Adolph Trudeau Says:

    The difference between what Google does and what government does is that Google makes a one time snapshot of your house from the street whereas government sets up cameras to watch every time you pass a particular point.

    More importantly, in return for the one-time snapshot Google returns back spades of utility value to me. Speed and red-light cameras do nothing for me in return for poking their nose in my business.

  3. chris hutt Says:

    “Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules, such as to obey traffic signals.”

    This is a very important point that should perhaps be stressed to those applying for and renewing driving licences. Perhaps every driving licence holder should be required to sign a declaration that they understand and accept that they hold the licence strictly on condition that they respect road traffic regulations.

  4. Richard Says:

    I think the real reason many people are against the red-light cameras (a reason no one says out loud) is that the cameras are an infallible sentry and if you run the light you are all but guaranteed a ticket. A normal police officer would have to just happen to be there when you run the light, and so the chances of you getting a ticket are greatly reduced.

  5. Hen Says:

    It’s always interesting to see cultural differences. Here in germany is a big discussion about Street View and some communities achieved to forbid Google to take pictures.

    On the other hand we have speed and red-light cameras for decades now and nobody cares in principle because they only take a picture if you have disobeyed the rules and on some country roads they definitely increased safety. Particularly on the winding roads motorcyclists love to use for their fun tours.

    A new discussion now has started on a new technology called section-control (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SPECS_(speed_camera)). The big difference to the usual red-light and speed cameras is that initially all cars need to be registered so you cannot be sure if these data some day will be used to track people.

    @Adolph Trudeau (#2): These cameras do something for you. They increase your safety on the road for example by lowering the risk of someone crashing into your car if you pass an intersection at green light.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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