Watching them watching you: Liveblogging Google at the ATI, Ethics and Privacy Committee - Macleans.ca

Watching them watching you: Liveblogging Google at the ATI, Ethics and Privacy Committee

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It’s going to be tough, but  ITQ will do her best to restrain her giddy fangirlishness when representatives from Google — well, Google Canada, but still —  take the witness stand during this afternoon’s hearing on privacy implications of camera surveillance. Also appearing: Canpages, Inc, which relies on traffic cams to provide directions and traffic reports.

3:21:09 PM
Good afternoon, Googlephiles/phobes! We’re running a bit late this afternoon – well, the MPs are, at least, due to a trio of votes that will probably take at least a half hour to get through; ITQ was, of course, here at the crack of 3:15pm. It turns out I’m not the only one drawn like a bug to a zapper to this particular hearing — there are at least three TV crews here, and the one witness – Olivier Vincent from CanPages – already present is willingly submitting to the scrum — he already has not one but two flatscreens hooked up to his laptops and was doing his best to explain how his company is *not* being investigated by the Privacy Commissioner — the two are simply “in discussions” over the company’s use of realtime street-level shots.

3:33:22 PM
The Googlers are here! The Googlers are here! They look so — normal. How disappointing. Only one of the three is actually slated to testify, according to the notice — Jonathan Lister. He, oddly, doesn’t seem to have a laptop, although he is armed with a bright red binder.

3:39:29 PM
Man, I’d forgotten how long it’s been since I’ve covered Ethics — I nearly didn’t recognize Pierre Poilievre when he scampered over to present himself — or allow himself to be presented to — the witnesses.
The vote is over, apparently, so the MPs should start trickling in soon; the NDP’s Bill Siksay is already here, as is the Bloc’s Richard Nadeau.

Oh, I forgot to tell you guys this — not strictly relevant to this particular meeting, but interesting nonetheless: earlier this week, the Bloc Quebecois reportedly withdrew their motion to re-open the in and out investigation. Nobody knows why, exactly, but it was pretty much out of the blue; it was actually set to be the first order of business when the House resumes this fall.

3:49:19 PM
Alright, the chair – Paul Szabo, of course – is here, which means t’s time to gavel down, and he does so. After a brief recap of this particular study, he hands the floor over to Lister, who smiles brightly at the committee and begins his opening statement.

3:51:44 PM
Before getting to Google Streetview, Lister gives a quick background briefing on the story of Google, both in the US and in Canada, and notes that the company creates jobs, funds research and development, and was recently ranked as the #1 company in Canada to work for. Given all that, he notes, it’s no surprise that Google Streetview is so popular; he cleverly cites Poilievre’s National Post op-ed on what great news it is that Streetview is now available in Canada. “An innovative service like street view,” he says, has the power to change how companies and cities market themselves. It’s changing the way people think about maps!

I should count how many times he uses the word “innovate” or any of its derivatives.

3:57:07 PM
Lister understands why some people might have “privacy concerns” over Streetview, but reminds us that the all-seeing GoogleEye doesn’t pick up anything that isn’t already viewable from the street, and points to their state of the art blurification technology, which allows faces and licence plates to be obscured. Also, it’s not *realtime* — most of the images are at least a year old, making it a pointless outing for lazy stalkers. (I wish I could see the look on Vincent’s face right now, since he can’t say the same thing about *his* virtual peephole.)

4:00:32 PM
After another half a dozen or so references to Google’s supercalifragilisticinnovationaladociousness,
Lister wraps up, and the spotlight moves to Vincent, who tells the committee about the “unique multmedia experience” that his company provides — to more than 80,000 customers across Canada. They have free text messages, mobile apps, you name it.

On to the “street scenes”, which provide “panoramic views” and hi-rez search results. The company focuses on *commercial* areas — not residential — and has not received a single complaint to date.

4:04:10 PM
You know, I wish there was a better way to put it than “shooting the public”. Anyway, CanPage will even provide *exra blurring* – windows, faces, even pets.

He also puts that laptop to work, and wows the MPs — well, I’m assuming they’re wowed; they’re awfully good at maintaining poker faces — with a demo search for Vancouver restaurants. Mmm, that Indian place looks *delicious*.

He points out that the faces are blurred — you can’t recognize anyone.

4:08:15 PM
Szabo thanks the witnesses for their testimony, and observes with his trademark deceptive mildness that no one is particularly concerned about *commercial* regions, yet complaints have been raised in country after country around the world, including Canada, over the inclusion of images of private individuals. He invites each to provide their company’s respective policies on privacy, and Lister assures him that Google complies with all federal and provincial regulations – they feel that they’ve struck a “strong balance”, and are able to meet their privacy expectations.

Not to be outdone, Vincent assures the committee that *Canpages* is in touch with *all* provincial privacy commissions, as well as the federal watchdog; they’ve also “studied the law very carefully” to make sure they don’t inadvertantly stray over the line. At the same time, he warns, “you don’t want to hamper technology with excessive rules.”

4:11:53 PM
On to the main Q&A, and Liberal Michelle Simson, who wants to know why Google insists on retaining unblurred images, no matter how securely — why not destroy the
original? Lister explains that it is for “product enhancement” — Google engineers like to keep the images around to make the product better — sometimes the software mistakes “a round sign” for a face, and autoblurs it. Simson still doesn’t see why they have to keep *all* the original pics, and Lister reminds her that the retention policy has been changed — from now on, the originals will be blurred. Why not destroy them, though? Simson is definitely not letting this go without a fight; Lister eventually points out that they just don’t want to make a promise they can’t keep. That’s — somehow both unreassuring and reassuring at once.

Simson, meanwhile, reminds Lister that Canadian privacy laws haven’t been changed in over two decades, and never conceived of such technological advancement; Lister, in turn, stubbornly maintains that *most* cities and town *welcome* the arrival of the GoogleCams. With flowers and chocolates, even, or at minimum, rosy visions of increased tourism and local commerce.
4:18:28 PM
The Bloc’s Eve Marie Ti Lac grills Olivier on street numbers — are those blurred, or not? I guess the answer is no, because Olivier gets a bit defensive; he doesn’t see that as private information, even when there may be residential addresses as well.

Thi Lac wonders if the company also removes the images of young children, so the neighbourhood doesn’t risk becoming a – what, an online pedophile shopping site? I do understand the privacy concerns over StreetView, but really, that sounds like a bit of a stretch. Anyway, Vincent reminds her that all faces are blurred.

Lister notes that Lac used the word “film” earlier; Google is not, he stresses, “filming” anything. These are still photos. He goes over the removal policy, and how very, very seriously the company takes those requests, but Lac seems sceptical that most people who might unwittingly be caught in the spotlight would even realize it was possible.

4:26:52 PM
Next up is Bill Siksay, who begins by reminding all and sundry that Vincent hails from his riding of Burnaby, and gives him another opportunity to play with his laptop – more discussion of blurring, and how quickly Canpages responds to complaints or demands for additional. Vincent, mouse in hand, goes through the online removal request form; Lister, meanwhile, manages to spill water all over his side of the table, narrowly avoiding a complete drenching of his binder. I guess he was lucky he *didn’t* bring his laptop, huh? Anyway, after Vincent finishes up, Lister discusses Google’s policy on complaint resolution; there are safeguards to make sure that a mischievous complainant can’t “bring down” the CN Tower, but the process itself is fairly simply.

Siksay then makes a good number of audience members inwardly wince when he jokes that the term “server farm” is a new one for a “technopeasant like me”. If he comes out with a cyber- anything, he’s banned from the blog for two minutes.

4:34:09 PM
Pierre Poilievre, everybody! He wants us all to know that he’s superkeen on this whole streetview technology thing, although he thinks it has to respect four principles: blurring of faces, but also sensitive locations – clinics, he suggests, then hastily adds ‘women’s shelters’ – as well as protection of commercial information.

He then reads a letter from a constituent, who – through a rather fantastical and fantastic series of unfortunate events – wound up naked on Google Streetview. Poilievre gives the unfortunate man’s name – Ron White – and his *address* – and wonders how Lister can reassure him that he’s not about to become an accidental international sex symbol. Lister, who is doing a remarkable job of keeping a straight face, reminds him that cameras can’t see through walls – or windows – and promises that they’re just trying to make better maps. And a better world. Poilievre is not *entirely* mollified – he gives Lister the date on which this photo was allegedly taken, and says that he wants to “work with him” to make sure that this particular photo never makes it online. I don’t suppose “Ron White” could be a pseudon— no, no, I’m sure that’s not the case.

4:41:08 PM
Poilievre wonders whether Lister believes that StreetView images should be explicitly exempt from the commercial privacy laws, as journalistic and artistic images are, and Lister hems and haws – he’s not a legal expert, he notes – but after working it through in his head, he seems to come to the conclusion that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Szabo picks up on one of Poilievre’s other questions – the issue of notice. How much warning did he give the denizens of cities to be Googleized, he wonders – and were any photographs taken *before* the company bought up ads in the various local newspapers? There’s a bit of back and forth after dates; Lister acknowledges that there may have been *some* photographs taken before the ads went out, but none have been or will be posted online as part of Street View.

4:44:48 PM
Louise Zavec just doesn’t think this is cartography, and despite his best efforts, Vincent does not seem to be able to persuade her to the contrary.

In fact, she seems pretty much unsold on the entire idea — she goes a few rounds with both witnesses over the safety implications, prompting Lister to point out *again* that these are *public* places — anyone wandering down the street at that moment would have seen the same thing.

4:48:53 PM
You know, I’d nearly forgotten that Kelly Block exists. She too is worried that “our most vulnerable individuals” won’t be protected, and also brings up shelters. Lister reminds her that all cities are forewarned, and notes that the company is wlling to work with any organization concerned about the potential for risk. Vincent ressures Block that his company has taken extra steps – although, as he points out, making an obvious effort to overblur an otherwise unremarkable building might actually *attract* attention, and make it easier to identify shelters.

4:52:19 PM
Block turns the rest of her time over to Poilievre, who wants to go back to the retention of images, which seems to contravene Canadian law — he challenges Lister to provide a “timeline” in which all nonblurred images would be destroyed. Lister reiterates that the product won’t launch until those concerns are met, but he’s not willing to give a timeline just yet.

4:55:22 PM
You know, I don’t think Lister’s argument that these are all publicly viewable scenes is cutting much ice with the committee, there is quiet, but unmistakeable expression of polite scepticism on the faces of every MP at the table. Well, except perhaps the ones I can’t see from here, but still.

4:56:48 PM
It’s left to a Bloquiste – Nadeau – to bring up George Orwell and 1984; he notes that there is also concern over how this information might be misused by third parties – criminals, for instance – or others with “bad intentions”.

Vincent reminds him that innovation can sometimes lead one to scary places – he denies having heard any evidence of bad things happening that can be directly and solely attributable to street-level photos: That, he says, is just “overreaching”. What with the blurring and the other safeguards, he just doesn’t believe that privacy is at risk.

5:01:04 PM
Russ Hiebert is up – second time in two days that our paths have crossed on the committee front. He explains to the witnesses that, although they keep bringing up intended use, this committee is concerned about unintended consequences. He wonders whether additional notices will be given to communities that are about to be Googleized, so that residents who don’t want to be immortalized can take precautions; he then tries to come up with all sorts of non-adultery-related reasons why someone might be worried about having their car appear in an image, even with the licence plate blurred. What if they want to hide the kids’ toys or are mowing the lawn? You know, you could just *say* “What if some shmoe doesn’t want his wife to catch him parked outside his mistress’s house?” I mean, that’s a legitimate privacy concern. Honestly.

He also wonders whether Google has ever been cited in a lawsuit — not necessarily sued, but mentioned as having made an individual more vulnerable. Lister doesn’t think so, and counters with an example from last week, when police were able to use Street View, plus GPS, to find and recover a missing girl.

5:11:46 PM
Siksay asks about the “cultural concerns” that arose in Japan — something about the level of the cameras — and Lister pounces on the opportunity to turn this into a good news – or really, good Google – story. Simson notes that the company actually reshot the entire city after being made aware of the issue, and wonders what the nature of the country’s collective complaint had been. Lister points out that the incident in Japan is a testament to how seriously Google takes privacy concerns. He really doesn’t seem to know *why* “the whole country” had to be reshot — really? Wouldn’t that be a topic of office conversation, at the very least, given the cost?

Lister also reminds Simson that Google is also “redriving” Canada, after having made the decision not to use any of the images collected before the initial kerfuffle arose.

5:17:46 PM
Attention Greg Weston – Poilievre just described you as a “respected columnist”. Please get ready to be affectionately mocked.
He’s currently up for a third round – yes, I know – and back on the warpath over these images being stored offshore, out of the jurisdiction of Canadian privacy laws, and once again asks Google to work with the committee to come up with a timeline for destroying all unblurred images taken in Canada.

Hiebert, meanwhile, goes him one better: Since this data is currently being stored in the US, does that mean it falls under the US Patriot Act? Could it be seized by the American government? Yikes. If you guys were hoping to work me into a panic over Google Street View, well – mission accomplished.

5:25:06 PM
More griling over the upcoming shoots — or “drives”, as Google puts it — and pointed suggestions that the company make more of an effort to alert people to the looming arrival of the GoogleCams; Lister and Vincent are both looking a bit worn down, not that ITQ blames them.

Earl Dreeshan, meanwhile, wants to know if there are ads on Google’s takedown page, which is a wonderfully random question, as well as whether the company collects IP addresses of home users; the answer seems to be “no” and “no”.

That’s all for today — a housekeeping motion that passes in seconds, and a thank you and farewell to the witnesses, and we’re out of here. Everyone feeling — vaguely under surveillance? Yeah, me too.