My last post, on Google Street View, was covered by the LA Times, Commentary Magazine , Search Engine Land and a host of others. The spread of Google Street View to Israel, touching as it does both personal privacy and national security, is clearly of interest to many around the world.
Street View’s first foray into the Middle East comes at a time of political instability, when countries in the region seem liable to temporarily drop off the ‘net. In this context, the openness with which Israel is embracing street view, despite the resulting capability for surveillance by non government actors, be they terrorists, tourists or NGOs, puts Israel in sharp contrast to the rest of the Middle East. This highlights some of Israel’s fundamental values, not only as a vibrant democracy, but as a hyperdemocracy, something I have been meaning to write about in the context of Wikileaks for some times now.
Israel has always been a hyperdemocracy. The very existence of the modern state came about as a result of communication by Jews around the world and across the ages, physical meetings at the Zionist Congresses, and the creation of the Yishuv with its community culture. Israel today is a diverse society where “connections” between people, more so than structured systems, are how things get done. The army plays a role too, a business leaders local mechanic or supermarket manager may also be their commanding officer when they called up for their reserve duty. It’s only in light of this understanding of Israeli society, culture and values that the decision to proceed with Google Street View, with minimal government intervention, makes sense.
In weighing up the costs and benefits, Israel has touched upon some truths that have implications for business, technology and politics not only in the region, but globally as we go through a period of technological and political change. One key aspect of that change is the loss of control by governments and the media in favor of a diversity of information and a public “right” to access and assess that information individually. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly even street view.
The message I got from the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem is that Israel is ready to engage. One would expect no less from a hyperdemocracy with a high tech industry second only to Silicon Valley. I was told by the PM’s office that “the issue is relatively simple” and that they would engage in discussions with Google and “look forward to working with them”. I put this to Google who replied that they still “don''t have anything to add at this stage”. It seems the technology giant is well aware of the public’s sensitivities in light of concerns expressed elsewhere in the world, and is proceeding with care.
From Israel’s side, the PM’s office told me the reasoning behind the decision was twofold: "It will be good for tourism and for Israel''s image." I was told security installations would be off limits, personal privacy would be respected, and "everything else is fine." This is a minimalist approach, no different from Europe, despite the very real security concerns Israel has.
In the privacy sphere, Israel will no doubt learn from past experiences overseas. Respecting privacy may mean the ability for people to remove themselves will be protected by government. At minimum the blurring of faces and license plates, etc. should be standard. Google themselves have already included these features, so there may be little work for government regulator beyond ensuring compliance. The roll out in Israel should therefore be a little smoother than past roll outs. With the active involvement of the PM’s office, any trouble shooting should be rapidly resolved. The more interesting issue relates to Israel’s image. This is where the policy on street view connects back to hyperdemocracy. The Prime Minister''s office noted that "Israel is clearly on the open side of the globe, the side that promotes information and technology." This is, if anything, an understatement. The Israeli press covers the entire political spectrum as well as numerous languages. All perspectives are given their column inches inside the country, and journalists from around the world join them in providing intense scrutiny of every political, social, cultural or religious issue that occurs. The openness of Israel stands in contrast to other parts of the Middle East. Street View will no doubt photograph Palestinians being searched at security check points and protesters clashing with police. Unlike the selective picture of political activists, Street View will also show another side. If the Street View car goes to Sderot, fallen rockets and holes ripped into trees, walls, and concrete shelters will also be captured. The public perceptions will be shaped not purely by the photographs, but by which images go viral. There is no doubt that hostile governments, terrorist organizations, and NGOs that have become partisan to the conflict will all be scouring the Street View images.
I raised my concerns with Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, who agreed that "we have to be wary of terrorists taking advantage of this technology for their violent purposes, and therefore must insist on certain limitations” but also said that “there are also many advantages to this application that we should welcome.” Mr Ayalon went on to say that “Street View will show the truth about Israel and will provide people with another side of Israel, the daily life of a modern, pluralistic and diverse country. It will also show signs of hope, development and cooperation between people of all backgrounds. It will provide the best experience people can receive of Israel, short of visiting themselves.”
Mr Ayalon advocated making information available and letting people make up their own mind. “I hope people visit us in cyberspace, be it through street view or the virtual Israel that was set up in second life. Most importantly though, I hope they visit us in person. Israel is unique, and that can only truly be appreciated when you are here, with your feet firmly planted on the ground" he said.
Israel’s position, minimal restriction on information flow unless it is to protect individual rights, may be a lesson to other countries. It may be the only real choice for a modern democracy as all countries are forced to become hyperdemocracies. The risks are there, and unavoidable, but ultimately as information is assimilated onto global platforms, resistance may be futile. Israeli leaders may be technically savvy enough to have realized this. Even so, both Israel and Google need to recognize the difference between facilitating user generated content and systematically making available a body of supposedly neutral geographic information. We’ve seen this before with Google Earth. In social media a diversity of opinion adds value, but in information resources that value lies in truth. If NGOs, terrorists or hostile actors try to game the system, Google should have no hesitation removing or replacing images... preferably before they become public. Asking the Google Street View employees to keep an eye out as the pictures are taken would be a good first step.