anonymity


Street View is an application from Google which displays a drive-through photographic view of each road. The level of detail captured by the photographic record is comparable to that a passer by might notice. I have used it to explore the streets of my childhood. One wall where we used to play in the street looked so tall to me as a small child – but now it has unaccountably shrunk. The entrance to my primary school looks tiny. I looked to see if the crane flies and spiders webs were still there – phew, I couldn’t see them.

Street View opens up the possibility of a visual history of our lives. Quite often I pass by a demolished site and strive to remember what was there before. With one-in-seven retail sites being closed at any point, it is hard to keep up. Old houses are redeveloped. The visual landscape remains in memories and some old photographs but one cannot find a visual history. I want to rewind to the places that used to exist. Peoples’ lives were shaped by stores like Woolworths and local grocers and bakers and butchers. Mums carrying heavy bags would stop by the Lyons Corner House for a pot of tea and some cake. Dad would pop into the King’s Head for a quick pint and a smoke. These social historical landmarks have disappeared within one lifetime.

The initial British reaction to Street View is typically circumspect. Firstly, there is the Privacy argument that our homes should not appear on the internet for all to see. This is not very convincing from the country with a higher density of CCTV cameras than any place else on earth. There is no law against taking pictures from a public space (unless for criminal purposes). Residents of private roads would have a better claim to privacy. Secondly, there is the argument that burglars would find it easier to case a joint and select their getaway route using their (stolen) laptop. It is difficult to believe that this will lead to much additional crime. If only some our criminals were to adopt such a systematic approach to the rest of their lives, then they may not need to break into houses. The fact is that all new technologies enable criminal activities but these also bring new modes of fighting crime. Mobile phones are used by gangs to communicate – but phone records can be used to show the connections between the suspects and the events. Leaving a trace of a search on a particular address which was burgled could be incriminating.

Those who object to having their property viewable on the internet can request it be removed. Yet this is likely to attract more attention. Why would someone want their property to be blanked out? Perhaps they have something valuable to protect. No doubt there will be a service showing all the places that Google redacted. The fatal flaw with being a white moth in an industrial landscape is that all the predators notice you. Surely it is far better to blend into the anonymity of familiarity. Sensitive commercial or government buildings are often characterised by nondescript architecture without any signage. There is no need to depart from this stratagem.

There are plenty of groups for whom the new visual convenience will be of great benefit. Tourists will explore from afar and know what to expect. Disabled people will anticipate access issues. House hunters save legwork and petrol. Car parkers want to know where looks safe. Parents can see where their children live.

Perhaps in exchange for being allowed global domination, Google should have a Global Service Obligation to archive all systemic public knowledge. Regarding Street View, let’s define some obligtions: where vehicles obscure views, send the photocar again; update each photo regularly; create time-views going back to the earliest records. We want nothing less than the map of the world for modern times.

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The government is placing victims and witnesses at the “centre” of the criminal justice system. The Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Act will enable anonymity of victims and witnesses in court. Appearing in court is scary enough for most people. Those who are intimidated or vulnerable would be spared having to testify in person against the object of their fears. If more people are prepared to stand up in court, there will be more convictions. This is part of the government agenda to bring more offences to justice, reflecting public sentiment.

The inherent contradiction in this approach is that we also need to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. It is essential that the defendant should know what he or she is accused of and who the witnesses are. A witness who is granted anonymity presents two types of problem. Firstly, the fact that special measures have been taken will indicate to the jurors that the defendant is regarded as intimidating. Secondly, the possibility of challenging the evidence is restricted. Of course, we can get more convictions if we are prepared to compromise on fairness, but is this what society really wants?

Sean Hodgson has just been released after 27 years in jail for a murder that he did not commit. He was not eligible for parole since it is conditional upon an admission of guilt. He refused to admit guilt on the not unreasonable grounds that he did not commit the crime. Even though he suffered from mental health problems, he maintained his integrity and dignity.

These “miscarriages of justice” always command considerable media interest reflecting the genuine public concern that the criminal justice system should be reliably accurate in identifying perpetrators. The fact that Hodgson had originally confessed to the crime, and provided details to the police which were not generally known, demonstrates why the original conviction was beyond reasonable doubt. The conviction has now been deemed unsafe following a review of the DNA evidence. This evidence could have been reviewed over the years, but never was. It took a determined new defence solicitor, instructed following an advert in the prison newspaper, to track it down. What this shows is the vital role of the defence. The rest of the criminal justice system has little incentive to uncover exculpatory material unless prompted.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern English defines a victim as a person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance. Judging by his fragile state of health as he emerged down the steps of the Court of Appeal, the released man is a victim. He will be entitled to financial compensation although nothing can make up for his loss of freedom and health. The question we have to confront is whether we want to have more Sean Hodgsons in the future – people who will be convicted on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The criminal justice system should accurately separate out the guilty from the innocent. Stacking the odds against some defendants is going to increase the number of wrongful convictions.