Can’t Even Urinate in his own Yard Anymore

While some people were fretting over Google’s new “privacy” policy that took effect March 1—“Calling this a ‘privacy policy’ is Orwellian doublespeak,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog—others were counting Google AdSense dollars from their blogs, hoping that Google could collect more user data so that ads would generate more revenues. Ka-ching. Just then, an insidious and at once funny information-age issue erupted in France, or more precisely in a tiny village in Maine-et-Loire.

A guy was minding his own business in his yard…. He was, well, urinating, but the gate was closed. There must have been something appealing about it. Or maybe he was just too lazy to go inside or whatever. However, we know that he was doing it because a Google Street-View vehicle drove by, and its rooftop camera that was mounted on a post could see over the gate and caught the hapless but otherwise relieved guy in flagrante delicto.

But he didn’t know it, and he still didn’t know it when the scene appeared on Street View—the photo, though slightly blurred, showed him in his yard, relieving himself. His neighbors discovered the photo, and it was only as he was becoming the laughingstock of his village that he learned about it, according to his lawyer, who’d filed a lawsuit against Google, demanding the immediate removal of the photo and €10,000 ($13,000) in damages. “My client doesn’t do this for money, he just wants his privacy respected,” the lawyer said.

It might be hard to feel sorry for this guy—as a commenter wrote: “Before, he was the laughingstock of his village; but thanks to his legal action and his lawyer, he has become the laughingstock of all of France.” But it’s one more example of how privacy, even in our own yard—and for whatever silly reason we may desire it—has become a quaint concept of the past.

Big-city folks have long gotten used to video surveillance cameras on sidewalks and inside buildings. Drivers are routinely filmed crossing red lights, an expensive event. The newest reincarnations are systems that study consumer behavior in stores. Customers with smart phones can even be identified. At the Safeway down the street, there is a small sign in the wine aisles telling you that you’re on video—that your cumbersome decision making process will be recorded for further study. Did you read the text on the back of the bottle? Did you agonize for 30 minutes?

Then there are the run-of-the-mill data breaches. They happen even at institutions that are supposed to be technically sophisticated. NASA for example. It spends $1.5 billion on IT and $58 million on IT security annually, according to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin’s testimony before Congress last week. And yet, in 2010 and 2011, NASA discovered 5,408 incidences involving installation of malicious software and unauthorized access by a wide variety of hackers, including organized crime and foreign intelligence. In 2011 alone, it experienced 13 breaches, some of which could compromise US national security.

Occasionally, breaches become personal. A few years ago, the business school where I received my MBA an eternity ago—a sophisticated large institution—notified me that my personal data including my social security number had been pilfered. It added that my data had also been pilfered in a similar security breach a few years earlier.

In the information age, personal information has a monetary value. So it’s being collected, stored, stolen, and sold. Smartphones have become the most effective means of grabbing user information. Unlike the internet that still offers users some anonymity if they’re careful, smartphones are tied to the user’s identity. So, how far will all this go? All the way. Because that’s where the money is.

Among all products in the world, user information is unique. We hand it over for free. It can be sold from the same inventory millions of times without running out. There are practically no storage costs, and no handling and shipping expenses. It doesn’t rot or mildew or rust. User information is simply the best product ever invented—and yet.

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