Monday, January 16, 2006

Online mapping - privacy concerns

I came across a recent posting in about mapping services introduced by companies such as Microsoft and Google, which raised potential privacy concerns.

The images are so detailed you can tell whether a neighbor's hedge was recently trimmed or whether the car parked in front of a local eatery might belong to a friend....
The companies' newly evolving search and mapping services make it easier than ever to scout out everything from vacation destinations to a new hairdresser.
Never before have searchable databases of detailed pictures covering wide swaths of urban areas been readily available.

Well, should we sound alarmed or not? Before I consider the Data Protection Directive (DPD), I should say that I have no objection with a general map showing roads, motorways etc. My main concern is the level of detail contained in a map, which will inevitably raise privacy concerns under the Data Protection Directive. More specifically, Art. 2(a) of the DPD:

(a) 'personal data' shall mean any information relating to an identified
or identifiable natural person ('data subject');
an identifiable person
is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference
to an identification number or to one or more factors specific to his physical,
physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity.

This is where we get to the crux of the issue. Can a home be related to an identifiable person? This is not an easy question, but it really comes down to whether the home in question relates to an identified or identifiable individual. Leaving aside the exemptions, it is arguable that if someone can identify the home as belonging to X, then it is personal data.
Probably, a pertinent example I could think of is the recent ruling by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which upheld the complaint by JK Rowling when a national newspaper had published a picture of the author's London home together with the name of the road on which it was located. According to the PCC, this was "sufficient information to identify the exact location of the property".

The Commission recognises that high profile individuals may be exposed to security problems if their precise addresses are published. Indeed, the newspaper itself noted that the complainant had ‘gained her fair share of stalkers and obsessive fans’. The Commission was satisfied that the photograph and its caption contained sufficient information to identify the exact location of the property. It did not consider that the newspaper had demonstrated that the information was in the public domain to such an extent as to justify publishing it in this way. There was therefore a breach of Clause 3 on this point.

Well, one awaits to see what legal developments arise on this issues!

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