Navigating Digital Privacy

    Backpacking through Europe is just a dream for many people, but for me it has become a reality. As I spend April travelling around this beautiful continent, full of history, photogenic building, and delicious food, I’ve noticed many cultural differences. In particular, something that quite shocking (and still catches me by surprise every time) is the lack of Google Maps Street View and transit directions in Germany. After being stranded outside a train station until I found someone to ask about the bus routes, I decided to investigate why transit information is unavailable in this country.

    As it turns out, this lack of data can be attributed to Germany’s strict privacy laws, which extend into digital privacy. According to Rakower, “Google Street View is a free mapping service that uses 360-degree panoramic photos to provide street level images, creating the illusion that the navigator is literally standing at the inputted intersection” (Rakower, 2011). With the implementation of these panoramic photos, many ethical issues come into play. Should people get to decide, on an individual basis, if they (and their homes/businesses) are included on Street View? Or is it fair for Google to include any images their technology captures? In other words, how far should one’s privacy regarding their own image extend?

     In 2013, Google began taking pictures of people’s homes in Germany for Street view, and citizens were outraged. While there was no illegal behavior on Google’s part, Germany’s high sensitivity regarding privacy meant that this made many people uncomfortable. Later, Johannes Caspar, a data protection supervisor in Hamburg, Germany, uncovered that Google was also “illegally collecting personal online data from encrypted Wi-Fi networks”, and fined the company (Miller, & O’Brien, 2013).

     Historically, Google has had many issues with implementing Street View in Europe because of the comparatively stricter privacy laws and differing cultural norms. Germany, however, extends its laws beyond having to blur faces and license plates, with citizens allowed to ask for their homes to be blurred out (Miller, & O’Brien, 2013). As a result, the public transit systems in many German cities don’t share transit data with mapping companies like Google Maps and Apple Maps. This unfortunately leads to lower public transport use, higher vehicle emissions, and the stifling of economic innovation.

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Trying to access Street View for Kehl, Germany. This feature doesn’t work in Kehl, but functions perfectly when used in the nearby Strasbourg, France

     Before we delve into the details, let’s take a step back and explain how transit applications work. According to David Zipper, all of these services rely on Application Program Interfaces (API) from a transit company that shares information and schedules about train positions, arrival, delays, and more (Zipper, 2017). Through websites like this one, this information is made available by transit agencies, and kept up to date through data feeds. Every transit app, including Google Maps, relies on these APIs to provide information to customers (Zipper, 2017). Since many transit agencies share their data through GTFS (a standard language), transit apps can easily expand into new cities. Internationally, 800 transit agencies use this standard, clearly demonstrating its universality (Zipper, 2017).

     Yet, as of April 2017, there are only 3 German cities that use GTFS: Berlin, Manheim, and Ulm. Certain others use their own national transit data standard, called VDV 452, but companies must get permission to access this data (Zipper, 2017). This lack of open data seems rather counteractive to the country’s efforts to combat climate change and pollution, not to mention all the potential revenue they are missing out on.

     What should carry more weight in this debate? Is the digital privacy of German citizens of greater importance than tourism, profit, and the environment? As Rice and Sussan explain, digital privacy is very difficult for businesses to define in a consistent way across cultural, gender, geographic, and generational boundaries. Without a universal definition and regulatory controls, businesses must establish fair privacy standards for the growing amount of data. Digital privacy must be regulated so that the public good, individual, and their privacy are protected. Otherwise, the relationship between the business and consumer is at risk (Rice and Sussan, 2016).

     Personal expectations are what lead people to determine what information ought to be private, and it’s obviously important to respect this. However, because Google targets customers on an international level, a balance must be found that satisfies the majority (Rice and Sussan, 2016). In class, the focus was on whether or not it’s just for companies to gather digital data about consumers, and how much they should be allowed to access. As we mentioned, Google holds so much corporate power that it’s difficult for us to understand the scope of Google’s data collection about us, let alone try to contest it.

     Germany’s decision to take back some control may seem frustrating, especially to travelers who are looking to find their way to their hotel or trying to plan a route in Germany. When we look further into it, though, it becomes clear that this apprehension to share data stems from years of tight privacy regulations that citizens are used to. Recently, German digital privacy representatives claim that the country is working towards more open data, but this will likely not be seen in the near future due to strong opposition from consumers. The debate on digital privacy will certainly continue on a global scale, due to differing cultural norms and individual perceptions. Perhaps finding a balance between privacy and open data will remain impossible, but only time will tell how this debate will unfold.

References:

Miller, C., & O’Brien, K. (2013). Germany’s Complicated Relationship With Google Street View. The New York Times. Retrieved 1 April 2017, from https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/germanys-complicated-relationship-with-google-street-view/?_r=0

Rakower, L. (2011). Blurred lines: zooming in on Google street view and the global right to privacy. Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 37(1), 317- 347.

Rice, J., Sussan, F. (2016). Digital privacy: a conceptual framework for business. Journal of Payments Strategy & Systems, 10(3), 260-266.

Zipper, D. (2017). The Case for Unshackling Transit Data. CityLab. Retrieved 1 April 2017, from https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2017/04/who-owns-transit-data/522444/

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