Google Street View Raises Privacy Questions: Amusing To Some, Upsetting To Others

Privacy is back – or at least the issue is back. A range of events, announcements and investigations over the past several months have put privacy back in the headlines. And today, the links are coming in showing funny, revealing or potentially embarrassing photos of people on Google’s new Street View photography. (To a large degree this is a replay of discussion and issues that arose when A9 introduced “Block View” two years ago.)

First the photographs:

Robots.txt for a new era?

Car in the driveway (with license plate visible).

Entering the adult bookstore.

Taking out the trash.

Trying to shed those extra pounds.

BoingBoing has discussion, reader comments and links to a variety of “Street View Sightings.” Wired also collects a number of photographs, including a police bust, that are live on Street View.

Now the issues:

CNET’s Elinor Mills covered the Street View privacy question in some detail yesterday, including competitors’ attitudes and policies. Microsoft says it that if it were to more extensively roll out Street Side it would obscure recognizable pictures of individuals. Yahoo! and MapQuest currently don’t have street-level photography. But as I mentioned in a post on my personal blog about Google partner Immersive Media, which provided some of the photography for Street View, these images could be quickly rolled out on other mapping or local sites.

As stated above, this identical issue first arose with A9 when Block View (now defunct) was introduced two years ago. According to this 2005 interview with then A9 VP Barnaby Dorfman, there was an opt-out policy that allowed individuals to request removal of photographs.

Google offers a similar option to report “inappropriate” images. That’s available through the “Street View help” link at the top of all the Street View info windows.

optout.jpg

This is a reasonable approach, although many people captured on Street View may not discover themselves among these images except through others or republication in articles like this. In some cases that could be quite embarrassing. One could argue that Google should obscure the identifiable or recognizable images of people in the photographs to prevent such embarrassment. But that may represent a technical challenge. However, there are gray areas, so to speak, where the law might require that.

Indeed, there’s a good deal of confusion about privacy law in this discussion — what’s permitted and what’s prohibited — and perhaps for good reason. Privacy law and related laws of “publicity” are controlled at the state level in the US and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There are also copyright dimensions to this discussion: who has the right to publish a photograph of me, my house or my things?

Without getting into arcane detail, if something or someone appears in a public place it’s basically fair game. That includes the exterior of private residences. The gray area comes if someone is inside a private residence or otherwise has an “expectation of privacy” that is potentially violated by the taking of a photograph (say through a window). Where such privacy expectations attach, which overlaps with and is to some degree informed by US Constitutional law (Fourth Amendment), is a complex issue.

Most people who are reacting negatively to Street View are responding “viscerally” to the idea of cameras now being everywhere and their actions being potentially captured and recorded at any given moment. I’m not throwing up my hands when I say this is now the world we live in — a world of omnipresent cameras, monitoring and recording.

Google Street View is a valuable and practical addition to Google Maps but it also helps raise important, larger questions about privacy in the Internet era. There needs to be a serious public and political debate about privacy at a time when search engines make personal information so readily discoverable and ubiquitous cameras and video capture increasing amounts of what goes on in public — and private life.

Postscript Barry Schwartz: Google Zooms In Too Close for Some from the New York Times sparked some more discussion on this topic. See more coverage at Techmeme.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Google: Critics | Google: Maps & Local | Legal: Privacy

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Burgo

    You know, initially I had a bit of a chuckle about this, thinking about the poor sods caught in these pictures, such as the “Adult Book Store”.

    However, after reading the CNET article there is certainly food for thought here; as the article points out, how do we deal with this when it comes to things such as domestic violence support centers etc being captured? A very fine line to be treaded here…

  • http://www.britishchap.com David

    I think it’s fantastic – what with Panaramio and now this WOW!

    I’ve been doing some serious editing of misnamed or misplaced pics on Panaramio and then go to Google Earth and see my Dad’s car in his back yard in England…. Amazing

  • http://blog.agrawals.org Rocky Agrawal

    I found that the images in the Bay Area (the market Google covered) are much clearer than the ones in New York.

    The bigger privacy question, as you point out, is the ease with which anyone can put content up and make it searchable.

    As I was writing my post on being able to read a license plate in front of Google HQ, I decided to see if I could find the same information another way.

    With one search, I found a picture of the same car on flickr.

  • http://www.geo-trotter.com Geotrotter

    I added all the best “Google Street View” here : http://www.geo-trotter.com/cat-street-view.php.

  • http://www.mapmole.com Harley

    They should consider only blurring the requested images and not remove entire city blocks. The image of the guy peeing next to the road was removed but about a mile of road where you could zoom in to see him was removed also.
    I fear that it could become almost unusable in the policy continues.

    If you are looking for some Street View finds I have a site here:

    http://www.mapmole.com

    Feel free to view, vote and submit.

  • http://www.apogee-search.com/Blog/?p=488 Brian Combs

    To me, the greater issue with Google Street View is the Right of Publicity than the Right to Privacy. See my blog for more info.

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