Google Street View Continues to Raise Privacy Concerns
By Brian Cooper
Google Street View, a Google Maps feature that lets users see images of streets and the surrounding areas, continues to generate controversy. Since its launch in May 2007, the feature has prompted questions about whether it constitutes an invasion of privacy, complaints about inappropriate images, and even a lawsuit.
Aaron and Christine Boring vs. Google
The lawsuit came from a Pittsburgh couple in April 2008. The couple lives on a private road. However, Google's Street View team traveled down the road and continued taking images all the way up to the couple's home. The images were then posted to Google Maps and included close-ups of the couple's home, swimming pool, and outbuildings.
Google's response? "Complete privacy does not exist in this world except in a desert, and anyone who is not a hermit must expect and endure the ordinary incidents of the community life of which he (or she) is a part."(i)
While Google's assertion that its Street View imaging team is an "ordinary incident of community life" is far-fetched, Google does make some good points in its response. Namely, that the plaintiffs could have simply requested that Google remove the offending images from Street View via a form available on Google Maps. Instead, the couple filed suit and in doing so have made the matter public record and ensured that the images will be viewed by even more people.
Since the lawsuit, Google has removed the images in question, but the suit remains open.
The Borings' Neighbors
On Goldenbrook Lane, a nearby street, some of the Borings' neighbors also had an incident with the Street View team. In this incident, the Street View team drove up Goldenbrook Lane and into the driveway of the McKee residence. They continued to drive, snapping Street View images the whole way, up to the garages of the McKees.(ii) While it appears that the McKees didn't resort to a lawsuit, Google has removed the images of the home that were taken from private property from Street View.
Street View in California
In California, the antics of the Street View drivers continued. Drivers reportedly went on over 100 private roads in Sonoma County according to an analysis done by PressDemocrat.com. In another instance, Street View drivers went past two no trespassing signs as they photographed the 1,200 foot private road leading up to Betty Webb's house in Humboldt County. In another incident reported by PressDemocrat.com, Street View drivers ignored a no trespassing sign, passed through a gate, and drove through someone's yard on a dirt road near Freestone.
Street View and U.S. Military Bases
In March 2008, the Pentagon requested that Google remove some images of military bases taken from public streets due to the potential threat those images posed to national security. "It actually shows where all the guards are. It shows how the barriers go up and down. It shows how to get in and out of buildings," said General Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command.(iii ) According to Google spokesman Larry Yu, Google has honored the Pentagon's requests.(iv) However, the Pentagon was still reviewing the many images of military facilities that were included in Street View.(v)
Street View Goes Global
After the complaints in the U.S., other countries warned Google that Street View would have to be modified to comply with their stricter privacy laws. To this end, Google has improved facial recognition technology so that it can find faces in images and blur them so that they are unrecognizable. This technology has also been applied to license plates. The blurring feature has since been applied to U.S. Street View imagery in addition to images in other countries where Street View is now available.
While Google has removed some of the aforementioned locations from Street View, the burden to monitor Google's actions, be it Street View or other Google services, continues to fall on people like you and me. With regard to Street View, Google argues that "many people-visitors pulling in the driveway, neighbors turning around at the end of the road, deliverymen delivering packages-can all plainly see the exterior of the (Borings) home."(vi) While these examples are likely accurate for the Borings and the population in general, they involve people that we know or strangers that we requested to come to our homes. Private residents didn't request that Google visit these neighborhoods nor would residents reasonably expect that someone would be driving down their streets taking photographs of everything. In fact, I suspect that if you or I were to do the same thing, someone would call the police and we'd have some difficult questions to answer down at the station.
So, what could the consequences of Street View be? Well, while the feature has been used to aid police in a kidnapping investigationvii, I think the feature could be far more useful to criminals. For example, a criminal could use Street View to case a neighborhood-checking Street View for cars that are parked in garages or driveways so they could know when someone isn't at home, scan the yards and windows for any signs indicating that homes have security systems, check the proximity of neighboring houses using Street View and Google's satellite imagery, look for signs of pets that could pose problems for a thief, see if the homes have newspapers delivered (which might help the thief determine if the residents were on vacation) and, assuming the criminal found a good candidate, select a few potential access points (like open windows) for breaking into the home. If the Street View car happened to pass through your neighborhood on garbage day, the camera might even capture the box of that new HDTV you got. Scary, huh?
Protecting Your Privacy
So how can you protect yourself? First, check your address using Street View. To report a concern with Street View imagery, enter the address you desire and click "Search Maps." Then, click "Street View" in the thought bubble that appears on the map. Once the "Street View" image appears, click "Report a Concern" in the bottom left corner of the Street View image and enter the details of your complaint.
Second, be mindful of how your information is used and act when you feel your privacy is being threatened. Google's Street View can be a helpful tool, but it is meant to help Google sell ads and make money, not protect your privacy. You can write your local, state and federal representatives and even the local paper to voice your opinion.
Oh, and if you believe as Google does that "complete privacy does not exist," then you should check out the house where Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly lives using satellite imagery from Google Maps. It looks like he has had some construction done in the past few years. A simple Google search of the address (366 Walsh Road, Atherton, CA) will tell you that Schmidt merged two adjacent lots in 2001(viii) to create the new lot and then added a new fence, retaining wall, and drainage in 2004.(ix) Eric, that creepiness that you're feeling is probably approaching the level of the people who had Street View vehicles in their driveways. So, while it is Google's mission to "organize the world's information and make it accessible and useful," the company should thoroughly consider how that information can adversely impact the same people it is meant to help.
(c) Medium Blue 2009
i "Preliminary Statement." Boring vs. Google, Allegheny County, PA
ii TheSmokingGun.com "Google is in Your Driveway!"
iii Reuters. "Google pulls some map images at Pentagon's request." Mar. 6, 2008.
vi"Preliminary Statement." Boring vs. Google, Allegheny County, PA
vii Telegraph.co.uk. "US police use Google Street View to find missing child." Jan. 9, 2009
viii Town of Atherton City Council Minutes, May 16, 2001.
ix Palo Alto Online, September 24, 2001.