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Issue Date: July 2008

AnalystWatch: Google data issues

24 July 2008

Hot on the heels of the Viacom court case that is due to force Google to release its log files for YouTube usage is the news that its plan to introduce Street View in the UK is likely to be referred to the Information Commissioner because the photographs used within Street View also contain images of passers-by. As Street View is a commercial proposition, the feeling is that this breaks the UK Data Protection Act.
Google's troubles are only the tip of the iceberg. The court ruling in the US that said that Google has to release the IP addresses of YouTube users in order to verify if copyright material has been viewed and by whom is certainly a step further than was expected.
Ensuring that copyright material is not available would have been the expected decision, which could also have been extended to revealing the IP address of the person uploading the material, but to demand the identity (in a loose sense of the word) of everyone who has viewed the material opens up a whole can of worms, not least of which is the idea that those individuals' privacy rights might themselves be impacted by the decision.
In order for a 'crime' to have been committed, mens rea (criminal intent) has to exist, and that would mean that everyone viewing material on YouTube would need to know that they were watching copyright material, which is a bold assumption on the part of the ruling court.
If the mens rea does not exist (people were simply viewing available material under the assumption that it was legal to do so as it was posted on a freely available commercial site), then demanding their details must surely be an infringement of their civil liberties.
The whole issue goes far beyond Google, YouTube, and other applications. It cuts to the heart of what data is available about individuals and whether or not that data is really safe and for what purpose it can be used.
Losing data disks in transit or leaving files on trains could soon be seen as a minor inconvenience for the individual, compared with what might soon happen. If commercial organisations can legally gain access to user behaviour that most users would think is protected, then what use might be made of that information?
Not that Viacom is expected to use the information provided by the courts for any other purpose than to protect its legal and moral rights, but that data itself will need to be protected. What happens if the log files get lost in transit?
It might appear a bit simplistic to use Orwell's 1984 as an indicator of what may be to come, yet the analogy is almost impossible to ignore. If nothing is secret, if nothing is safe, then nothing is impossible.


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