Public and Private

Jeff Jarvis notes that there has been some controversy over Google’s Streetview, which allows people to see videos of what’s going on in the streets, including residential neighborhoods, in an ever-expanding number of locations.

In a few countries around the world, we’ve seen a backlash against Google’s Streetview as somehow an invasion of privacy, even though what Google captures is the very definition of public: what can be seen in the open.

I wish that journalists would defend Google and its definition of public, for it matters to journalism.

I don’t have strong feelings on Streetview, although I do find it mildly creepy that it’s displaying things going on in residential neighborhoods.  I strikes me that the good purposes to which this could be applied are few and the nefarious purposes are many.

What interests me about Jeff’s post, though, is how far he takes the argument.

No, public is public. We need that to be the case, for journalism and for society. We must protect the idea of public.

He contends, for example, that politicians caught in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, cracks in bridges, and the protests on the streets of Iran are public activities and those wishing to hide these things from the public shouldn’t be allowed to do so on some notion of “privacy.”  I’ve got no problem with any of that, although I do think there ought to be some sense of privacy even out in public.  Journalists and television cameras camped out on the sidewalks in front of some person’s house tend to go too far and, certainly, the scummy paparazzi that chase celebrities around hoping to get photographs to sell to the tabloids do.  Where precisely one draws that line, though, I don’t know.

Indeed, I’d say this doctrine should stretch to saying that everything a public official does is public — everything except matters of security. Thus Britain’s MPs would not be allowed to black out their spending of taxpayers’ money. Thus the default in American government would be transparency, making any official’s actions and information open and searchable. Thus anyone in Ft. Greene could scour Streetview to look for unsafe buildings.

This seems to mix apples and oranges.  I fully agree that how politicians spend our money ought to be absolutely transparent with, as Jeff says, some exceptions on matters of security.  But, surely, everything a Member of Congress or other public official does shouldn’t be “open and searchable”?  Their Netflix queues?  Their bank records?  Their kids’ report cards?  Where do we draw the line? Even public officials are entitled to have private lives.

Photo: Bad Control

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’ve got no problem with any of that, although I do think there ought to be some sense of privacy even out in public.

    Legally I believe, “reasonable expectation of privacy” is doctrine, and the difference between a fenced backyard and a front step easily visible from the street is not insignificant.

    However, photographs that happen to capture for posterity something happening inside someone’s living room, just because the drapes might not have been pulled at that moment, would seem to this layman a violation of that “reasonable expectation.”

    Then again, legal doctrine or not, I’m considerably more circumspect when the drapes are open than when they’re closed.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Legally I believe, “reasonable expectation of privacy” is doctrine, and the difference between a fenced backyard and a front step easily visible from the street is not insignificant.

    I think that’s right. There’s a difference, though, between being seen by one’s neighbors and constantly monitored by cameras. Similarly, if I go out to eat at a restaurant, I obviously have less privacy than if I eat in my dining room. OTOH, I don’t expect a crowd to gather around and watch me and start snapping pics in either place.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    I agree with the idea that public is public thus no expectation of privacy once you are in public. If you want the privacy, go someplace private. Private…privacy, see how that works? Far, far too often people think that they have some sort of God given right to privacy even in public.

    Still, camping on someone’s front lawn because of a story is not good either. In fact, its tresspassing. Boot them on those grounds.

    As for a public servant, not sure I’d go as far as Jeff does. Yes, how they spend their money, what they do in public, and even some other areas of their lives should be open to scrutiny. Still, children’s lives, and such should be off limits.

  4. Michael says:

    The issue with streetview isn’t so much a matter of public vs. private, but a matter of permanence. As Scribe of Slog said, what would have otherwise been a fleeting exposure of private life into the public space may now be preserved indefinitely and made available to anybody. The things we allow to be public momentarily are much different than the things we allow to be public indefinitely.

    If you want the privacy, go someplace private. Private…privacy, see how that works?

    Is a public restroom public or private? If you allow someone to see you standing at a urinal, do you believe they have the right to take a picture of you there?

  5. sam says:

    Massachusetts Ave/Russell Street/Cogswell Ave

    Jesus Christ, I think I went out with that woman’s mother.

  6. Steve Verdon says:

    The issue with streetview isn’t so much a matter of public vs. private, but a matter of permanence. As Scribe of Slog said, what would have otherwise been a fleeting exposure of private life into the public space may now be preserved indefinitely and made available to anybody.

    In an age with digital cameras and sites like flickr.com get used to it. Really, go to flickr and look at malingering’s photostream. Especially one of her Ridiculous Los Angeles streams.

    The things we allow to be public momentarily are much different than the things we allow to be public indefinitely.

    That is your responsibility. And considering that more and more cities are putting in various CCTV systems and with the blessing of most people, I really don’t see a big deal.

    Is a public restroom public or private?

    It is a matter of degree. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public restroom. However, it is not the same as the bathroom in your house or any other room in your house. See here. You can expect to use the bathroom and not be photographed.