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 travelled 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.

Accountability

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.

Potential Consequences

So, what could the consequences of Street View be? Well, while the feature has been used to aid police in a kidnapping investigation[vii], 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.


February 2, 2009





Brian Cooper is the director of online public relations at Medium Blue, where he promotes the company’s clients on the Internet. He has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Georgia State University where he graduated summa cum laude. Medium Blue Search Engine Marketing was recently named the number one search engine optimization firm in the world by PromotionWorld. Visit www.mediumblue.com to request a custom guarantee based on your goals and your data.






Comments(11)

I checked my home address and got no street view option. Either way, can't they shoot the neighborhoods and streets only without photographing people's homes/driveways/garages? I don't think it loses the effectiveness, and you could still catch a glimpse of the color of house in the imagery without getting a full front view.

I'm not quite sure how street view could help a criminal case a neighborhood for open windows, or people on vacation/at work, unless that criminal has a time machine.

Those images are NOT updated in real-time, so how do you figure...?

I found one of my cars on street view. The registration was expired which I could clearly identify from the Google cam...

Unless you are a pervert who has nothing better to do, a million hours to widdle through the many locations that truly have no one on the streets to find one specific person doing next to nothing but walking then this quote "spy" feature doesn't do much for invading privacy as far as I'm concerned. Unless you are doing something wrong and you are scared to get caught on camera breaking an entering or whatever then this site doesn't truly invade lives. The zoom feature on this site isn't clear enough anyway and the outlandish number of locations to search through make it next to impossible to see your dear aunt gerdie in her shower. It would take days upon days to even find a street with people on it most days what with all the locations. Most times you just get empty streets from a day or 2 ago. It's quite hard to stalk someone on a street (if you can find them) from 2 days ago. It's not like it's giving out names, detailed, compromizing pictures and their exact address and social security number. It's far less invasive then an online dating site. Now that's scary!

The thing about this site that gets people up in arms is the whole idea of the unknown. The fear of the unknown is what scares us 9 times out of 10. It's the fact that if a site can put cameras all over town (be it hard to see pixalations or not) then what else is "big brother" doing? It's the realization that "big broth

It's the realization that "big brother' has been watching us and for quite some time. It's not the fear of this program and it's limited capabilities, but the whole idea in general that this program even exists and the realization that it may not be the only tool the government is using to quote "track" us.

Don't worry! I'm not some crazy "conspiracy theorist", I'm just a "realist" and I don't live with my head under the sand and think that if it's not happening to me, then it's not happening. I'm far from saying everyone else lives in a bubble; I'm just saying that for me, I can't live that way. I want to be connected to everyone and try my best to care about everything and not turn a blind eye to things.

I know! At what cost do we keep our selves connected is the real idea in question here.

Take care,
Stay sane!

So what if someone can see your house, did it not occur to you that the person who could look at your house on the Internet could just as easily see your house in real life and more importantly in real time too? I side entirely with google on this one, it is true that privacy just dosent exist anymore.

My address shows up as a green blob, as does the entire neighborhood. Since it is a rural area I guess the Street people could not find there way here!

As far as I'm concerned, Google Street View's usefulness far outweighs any danger it poses.

I also agree with the person above who pointed out how long it takes to navigate streets using SV - anyone really intent on casing a house would soon lose patience with the poor resolution and just drive there. Remember, that anyone who wants to burgle your house is going to be someone who lives within your vicinity. It's not like some guy in Manhattan is going to drive to L.A. to commit his crime when he has plenty of houses within his own area - and, trust me, he doesn't need Street View to do what people have been doing for thousands of years already.

One argument some opposed to SV use is that it's a "stalking" tool. I'd like to know how it can possibly be used for that purpose. In order to stalk someone using Street View you must already know their address. And if you have access to that information, you don't need Street View. And as also pointed out, many of the pictures in the U.S. are one to two years old so are ineffective for stalking. Plus, with the resolution being so low in many areas and the fact that Google's addressing is way off, often you can't even tell the exact address of any one house!

Oh wow...just checked my rural, private road, 12.5 acre address...there's even a picture of my dog on there! A google earth employee drove down my private driveway, past two no-trespassing signs, with her camera in December '07. She almost ran over our dog, and appeared to be taking pictures of our four-wheelers when I made it outside. She quickly backed up and drove off. Not one to just wonder idly, I jumped in my car, chased her down several dirt roads, and eventually through a ditch on someone else's property where I left her with the local Sheriff's department.

These people need to realize that country folk like myself bought places in the country so that they're not harassed. I will be applying to take myself and my residence OFF of Google Earth Street View. This is a RIDICULOUS encroachment on my privacy!

Are you people for real? As stated above Google Street View's usefulness FAR outweighs any danger it poses. The pictures of my house are about 4 years old and who cares, if someone wants to break into my house they are going to do it by driving by since they are in the area anyway. Someone hundreds or thousands of miles away isn't going to rob my home!!

The property tagged above of Eric Schmidt (Googles Main man) has no street view pics even though the rest of his area has WHY? Makes you laugh!!

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