Some have argued that privacy policy is being made on the hoofGoogle

In a case of mis-steak-en identity, one of Cambridge’s local four-legged bovine residents became international news last week when the face of said cow was blurred out by Google Street View to protect its privacy. The pixelated animal was spotted grazing the pastures next to the mill pond with his best mate ‘the brown heifer’, who was not so lucky. The automated face recognition system at the tech giant did not recognise this particular helpless calf, following a failed ‘injunction’ by its representatives from Slaughter and Hay and his vacant stare will now forever be part of the public domain.

The story of the blurred cow inevitably led to a plethora of much better puns across the pages of news organisations ranging from USA Today to the Derbyshire Times. Journalists began to milk it; churning out as much bovine related humour as possible. For one day, hacks embraced their inner-embarrassing-dad.

The cow joins the company of comedic snaps that are available to all since the inception of Street View, which currently includes staged murders, ‘horseboy’ and even a penguin riding a penny farthing. Although these images will no doubt generate enough content that will be peddled by Buzzfeed in the form of endless lists perfect for procrastination (11 things you won’t believe are found on Streetview!), we may have to ask some more searching questions.

What has been the cost of allowing Google to generate a snapshot of our public and sometimes private spaces?

Focusing on the UK, easily identifiable members of the public have been imaged leaving sex shops, being arrested and vomiting. Most of these images have received complaints and have thus been removed.

Escalation reached its figurative molehill when residents of the small local village of Broughton in Cambridgeshire carried out a ‘very English revolt’. Residents, who included a couple of housewives, a Tory councillor, a nurse and an energy consultant (a terrible start to an even worse punch-line), formed a human chain to trap the ‘spy car’ in a cul-de-sac. Unable to leave for more than an hour, and after no police officers arrived at the scene, the car eventually left.

So did the residents of Broughton have a right to be angry as their privacy was apparently invaded?

I don’t think so, but the issue of the ‘right to privacy’ is something that has been swept under the rug of political relevance. Under it lies the likes of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, the NSA, GCHQ, Rebekah Brooks and even Ms TRESemmé clutching her Snooper’s Charter – all issues regarding privacy that have faded from the public eye.

After patriot/whistleblower/dissident/traitor/hero Edward Snowden revealed the global surveillance network of the NSA and other intelligence agencies including those in the UK, a much-needed debate began on the balance of surveillance and privacy. Closer to home, the British government and their NSA counterpart – GCHQ – have been accused of illegally gaining access to mobile communications, Facebook entries, browsing histories of both innocent citizens and ones suspected of illegal activity. This means all those behind-the-back comments about your English supervisor are all on record somewhere, and also included are the messages sent between you and your drug dealer and all the illegal movies you have been downloading from The Pirate Bay.

The trouble here is that the line of what constitutes an illegal action being monitored is apparently malleable. The data is there: all the analysts need to do is switch their gaze to street-wise petty criminals, and they can be cracked down upon, but currently that doesn’t seem likely. The government line that has been pegged is that of national security. The onset of fear and anxiety since the advent of modern terrorism has given advocates of exhaustive surveillance all the backing they need to pass one communication bill after another. Throughout the global community, intelligence agencies have gained more and more power.

This relationship with the public on this matter is one of uneasy trust; we trust the government agencies to handle the mountains of data with nous, and we also fear the consequences of what would happen in the absence of such programmes.

In 1999, on an episode of The West Wing, Sam Seaborn, the deputy communications director of the White House, predicted that privacy will become the big issue for the next 20 years, comparing it to civil rights in the 50s and 60s, and the role of government in the 20s and 30s. With two decades approaching, and the world firmly docked into the ‘information age’, progress has been at a snail’s pace. We have taken a stance on surveillance founded on the greater good and the opinion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This train of thought is naive at best and has survived unchallenged.

Following the increasing number of undetected plots that have been successful in the countries with the strongest surveillance programmes, our reaction will be important. The amount of privacy that we are willing to handover for the sake of national security before our fundamental rights are infringed upon will need to be clearly defined once and for all.

The bull is resting, the conversation has died down and privacy is no longer on the electoral agenda, but have we avoided the horns?

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