Google CEO on Privacy, and Natural Surveillance

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher recently interviewed Google CEO Eric Schmidt at D9. The whole thing is worth a watch, but two statements by Schmidt were truly exceptional. The first is his definition of privacy, the second is his framing of mobile tracking as “natural.”

Schmidt on privacy:

… from our perspective, privacy is a compromise between the interests of a government and the citizen.

Schmidt on (what I’m now calling) natural surveillance:

I’m very concerned, personally, about the union of mobile tracking and facial recognition. Because, mobile tracking is something that can occur naturally by virtue of these devices … biometrics, in general, will make it possible to do facial recognition in crowds.

I should have known it was mother nature, and not mankind, that created this form of surveillance … damn you nature!

Informationell Deutschland

In preparation for the 2011 Graduate Center-Humboldt University Summer Seminar that I’ll be participating in, I thought it would useful to take stock of some of the recent informational happenings in Germany:

  • Germany is now the largest market for video games in Europe, driven primarily by German interest in the Wii Fit (more …).
  • German laws banning the distribution of photos of people or their property without their permission is forcing Google to modify its StreetView functionality before its launch in Germany (more …).
  • A number of German states, led by Lower Saxony, are now trying to prevent web services such as Amazon, Facebook, or Google from aggregating and sharing visitor information without the explicit consent of the visitor (more …).
  • Facebook has grown by 260% in Germany over just the past year and Germany is now the 18th largest country in Facebook with over 2M members. However, Facebook still remains much smaller in Germany than the Berlin-based StudiVZ social network which boasts over 13M members (more …).
  • A Hamburg court has ruled that YouTube can be held liable for damages when it hosts copyright-protected material without permission (more …).
  • Dead Drops — an anonymous, offline, p2p file-sharing network in public space — has been established by Berlin based media artist Aram Bartholl. Dead Drops embeds USB flash drives into walls, buildings and curbs in public space, allowing anyone to plugin their laptop to share their favorite files and data (more …). h/t jgieseking

This is, but of course, a very small sample of recent happenings. Hopefully I’ll have more to report post-seminar.



Whose Privacy?

Three Google executives were convicted in Italian courts today for violating privacy laws: David C. Drummond (senior vice president), George De Los Reyes (former chief financial officer), and Peter Fleischer (privacy director). The Telegraph has a review of the trial that found the three executives guilty of allowing a video, of a disabled Italian boy being beaten, to be posted on YouTube — which is owned by Google. This decision is being framed by prosecutors as a triumph for privacy:

The protection of an individual is fundamental to today’s society and business freedom should never come above that of person’s dignity and that is what this trial has shown.

I agree, entirely, with the first part of that statement — but when the prosecutor argues “… and that is what this trial has shown” I have to ask myself: what trial is he talking about? Whose dignity is being protected here? Certainly not the dignity of a wired society who is likely to face greater surveillance and censorship as a result of this irresponsible ruling. And, certainly not the dignity of that poor boy who can not “delete” his memories of that horrible act of violence. Of all the serious privacy issues associated with the practices of corporations like Google (see here) and Facebook (see here), and governments like the U.S. (see here and here) and China (see here), how does this qualify as a triumph for privacy when it has the potential to further erode individual privacy on the Internet?

Peter Fleischer is quoted in the Telegraph as saying he found it ironic that “as privacy director I have been found guilty of breaching privacy.” With respect to Fleischer, that’s not ironic — it’s to be expected that the person in charge of privacy policies for the most prominent global information company would find himself (fairly or unfairly) held accountable for those policies. What’s ironic is that three Google executives were convicted for violating privacy laws in an instance where they actually didn’t violate anyone’s privacy, and that conviction has the potential to further compromise individual privacy. Now, that’s irony.

Labour MP Tom Watson said it best in the Telegraph:

This is the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen in Europe. The only people who will support this decision are Silvio Berlusconi and the governments of China and Iran. It effectively breaks the internet in Italy.

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