Yesterday afternoon, I took to my car and headed away to run some errands. As I rounded the bend leading to the main thoroughfare, an SUV was pointed toward me, but stopped with the driver taking a picture of the house to his left. We passed each other slowly, then in my rear view mirror I saw the car advance and stop again.
The next house would be mine.
I turned around to follow him down toward the cul-de-sac. By the time I came back around the bend, the driver had passed my house, but the pattern continued: stop, click, advance; stop, click, advance, ...
The cul-de-sac ends in a loop around a small, grassy island where the neighborhood kids like to play. Presumably for the convenience of his photography, the driver entered the circle to the left, traveling clockwise. I entered to the right, traveling counter-clockwise, blocking him between a click and an advance.
There was the driver in a shirt bearing some company logo, his digital camera, and a clipboard all visible. I challenged him politely, “What are you up to here?” Nervously but directly, he answered that he was in the area photographing houses for a real estate database. He explained that the company already had notified the police that they would be in the area, he offered a brochure, and so forth, probably wondering what this territorial resident's next step would be... I thanked him and told him that that wouldn't be necessary; in fact, I really just wanted to see how he would respond.
Years and years ago, I worked as a private investigator for an agency. I knew the general rules and courtesies, such as informing the police that you would be in the area on business for when the nosy neighbors inevitably called about the weirdo sitting in the car outside your house. I knew that, whether his story was true or not, his documents would probably back his story. More importantly, though, I knew the fellow had every right to be there, taking a picture of every house on the block if that's what he wanted to do.
So, we may as well presume the story is true. Ask then what it means to have a private entity with a picture of every house in your region available with the click of a mouse?
Most people live at least subconsciously aware of certain risks and probabilities and make their decisions accordingly. Everybody living this way creates some state of equilibrium in the larger society.
Presumably, no one really has an interest in my house unless I intend to sell it or if someone is looking into moving into the neighborhood. There's not much traffic given that we're on a quiet cul-de-sac. We know many of the neighbors and we take note of strangers. It's generally safe for the kids to go down the block and play, generally safe to leave the bicycles up against the house, generally safe to leave the doors unlocked while you're around, and so forth. That's the character of the neighborhood, and it's fairly easy to determine by spending some time observing.
We might live differently if this was a high-traffic road through road with strangers constantly coming and going.
Somewhere out there will be a snapshot record of our entire neighborhood on a February afternoon. Virtually speaking, our quiet cul-de-sac just became a high traffic thoroughfare without our knowledge...
Who might have an interest in such information? Home buyers, of course, but who else? How about criminals, wanting to canvas the neighborhood (look at how those bushes cover that view from the street...)? Salesmen (at last check, these houses might need new roofs or windows...)? Government (is that an unlicensed improvement on that house?)? Really, there are no limits. As information becomes so readily available, and as it can be more easily associated ad correlated with other information, our lives become more and more open to everyone for any purpose.
If you knew today that someone would be taking a photo of your house for some database, how might you prepare? If you knew that such a photo already existed, how might you change your way of living?
I might have at least tidied up the yard...