May 31, 2007

Thoughts on Google Maps Street Level Photos ("Street View") and Privacy

Update (August 16, 2007): Would you believe that something very much like Google Maps "Street View" existed in 1907? Well, there are some remarkable similarities given the technology of the time, for sure. Take a look!

Greetings. The New York Times noted today that Google Maps is now displaying street level photos ("Street View") for some locations in some areas -- the list of which is sure to be expanding rapidly.

I've been asked what I thought about the privacy implications of this -- some people seem to be pretty upset.

I started noticing this feature on various Google Map searches around here in L.A. some time ago. It's certainly handy for getting a feel for what an unfamiliar place looks like before heading on over.

Given the static nature of the images, which currently are unlikely to be updated very frequently, I do not see a big privacy risk at the moment. Real estate companies are constantly snapping photos of houses in many areas for their databases -- though obviously these are not public in the way Google Maps now is. In my neck of L.A., I've seen film camera trucks bristling with lenses plowing up and down the streets shooting movie backgrounds.

In general, such photography from a public point (street, sidewalk, etc.) is legal -- though there are exceptions that can come into play for purposeful harassment and in other special cases.

However, it is possible to imagine possible situations where this feature of Google Maps could cause problems, and even potential risks for Google, depending on how Google chooses to manage the service.

So long as the images being used by Google Maps are from authenticated sources and are relatively infrequently updated, the privacy risks stay low for most locales. This isn't to say that various government agencies won't go berserk over particular images anyway -- given the ease with which you can get hassled by police these days for taking a photo of the local freeway overpass -- but by and large that won't happen for shots of most locations, to be sure.

However if Google decided to allow users to submit their own more frequently updated photos of locations, either for the official Google Maps database or through public "mashups" that link such photos to the mapping database, the situation becomes more problematic. Not only could much more frequently updated photos cross the line into real privacy violations, but the risk of photoshopped photos being submitted or used that show faked imagery would seem a real possibility. You can use your own imagination about the range of ways in which such fakes could be manipulated to attract attention, harass, or mislead.

Now, I have absolutely no indication that Google has any intention of permitting such "self-submitted" location photos scenarios. In fact, Google does have a link with which you can report "inappropriate" photos for possible removal, though if photos were faked, figuring out what was really inappropriate in different situations could get rather complex. In any case, all I'm saying here is that so long as Google Maps is using authentic photos on a reasonably infrequent update interval, the privacy risks remain relatively low in the vast majority of cases.

A bigger risk to the service might loom in the future though. I can't count the number of times I've gotten queries from people that amount to: "My neighbor has a camera pointed at my house -- who can I report him to? I feel like my children are at risk," etc. In almost all of these cases, my response is that so long as someone is taking photos from public spaces or their own property, and isn't making a special effort to see things they couldn't otherwise normally see, such photography or video is usually permitted. That answer seems to infuriate many people.

This seems to suggest -- given the post-9/11 mentality -- that it is not impossible to imagine laws that could be written specifically to restrict the use of such street level photos, ostensibly on personal security and privacy grounds. If Google Maps were painted as a major privacy problem -- which again is an opinion I don't subscribe to, but that some others already do -- this could act as a catalyst toward the enactment of such legislation. This would be very unfortunate in the absence of genuine, major privacy concerns of a sort that do not currently exist in the Google Maps context, and that might not ever exist there if Google and its competitors use due care.

I only bring up this sort of possibility as did the "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come" -- not as something that Will Be, but as something that Might Be -- a cautionary thought experiment, as it were.

So, bottom line -- for now the Google Maps street level photos provide a useful service and should not raise significant privacy concerns, except for a tiny percentage of photos, and they can be easily expunged. Whether this benign situation will remain the case depends upon Google's decisions regarding the service moving forward.

The late Allen Funt would probably have been amused, anyway.


Posted by Lauren at May 31, 2007 07:11 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein