Commentary: There's no app for privacy

The Miami HeraldApril 8, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

So, let’s say there’s this truly fine individual standing there across the room, and you’d like his or her name, number and email address, but don’t want the hassle of walking over and risking rejection.

There’s an app for that.

Well, not yet, but eventually there will be.

CNN reported last week that Google is at work on a facial recognition application that would allow you to snap a portrait of a given somebody with your cellphone and receive that person’s name and contact information. The function would be added to Goggles, an existing application that allows users to snap a picture of an object or building and have it identified.

And here, Google would want you to know that none of this is imminent. Though the technology has existed for years, and there is a demand for it, Google says that it has no plans to make the app available until or unless it can find a way to address the obvious privacy concerns. At a minimum, the app would require an opt-in clause, meaning a person would have to specifically agree to allow access to his or her information.

Google issued the following statement: “As we’ve said for more than a year, we will not add facial recognition to Goggles unless we have strong privacy protections in place. We’re still working on them. We have nothing to announce at this time.”

Duly noted. And consider me not mollified in the least.

In the first place, no one allowed me to opt out before that picture of my home appeared on Google Maps.

In the second place, this is the same Google that last year agreed to an $8.5-million settlement and last month agreed to 20 years of government privacy audits after publishing on its social networking site the names of people with whom its users regularly emailed.

In the third place, given the lack of judgment for which young people are notorious and the career- and life-damaging images and information they routinely post online, it is hard to be sanguine over Google’s promise to require users of the new app to opt in.

One can too easily imagine some girl opting in because it’s new and sounds like fun — only to wake up one night to find some guy standing beside her bed firing up a chainsaw.

Way back in the dim mists of history — meaning the 1990s — protecting your privacy was just a matter of shredding your phone bill before you put the garbage out at the curb. But that world has gone away; indeed, it ended with the abruptness of a car crash.

Now we find ourselves in a new world at the mercy of two amoral forces.

The first is technology, advancing remorselessly as some invading army.

The second is human nature: if a thing can be done, rest assured it eventually will.

So eventually, yes, you will be able to snap that stranger’s picture and know her name and address.

And so it goes. We live ever more interconnected lives on a shrinking planet where our old ideas about privacy are not so much changed as they are shoved aside. Make way.

The new is coming through. And that sentimental notion that you should be able to control how much of your life the world has access to goes the way of analog televisions and rotary-dial telephones.

This is not a Luddite complaint, not the complaint of someone who has never used Google to locate an unfamiliar address before getting behind the wheel. Rather, it is the complaint of someone who believes that a person has a sacred right to his or her own self and a fundamental right to be left alone.

But before our very eyes, these rights are being Facebooked, spammed and texted down to nothing. Now, there’s this. And in the face of concerns about intrusion, security and privacy, Google says, in effect: Trust us.

Which raises an obvious question:

Why?

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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