Law in the Internet Society

A Case Study in Privacy: Google Street View

-- By GavinSnyder - 15 Nov 2009

Google Street View, a component of Google Maps, provides panoramic camera photos views from streets. Street View is an example of how Internet data sharing can have serious privacy repercussions, so I thought it might be interesting to use it as a case study in privacy analysis.

Google Ducks, Weaves

From its inception, Street View has been the target of privacy gadflies. Street View captured people walking into porn stores, vomiting on the street, lounging about déshabillé, and in other compromising situations. Homeowners are worried about criminals casing them remotely. Tourism officials are anguished that non-seasonal images don’t portray their area favorably.

Google lists four concessions made to placate privacy interests: public road access only, lack of real time imaging, blurring license plates and faces, and the ability to manually request removal of an image. The blurring technology works well – see the entrance to College Walk as an example. Although Google doesn’t have explicit guidelines on when it will remove Street View images, it has been assiduous in responding to takedown requests.

This limited set of concessions has let Google gain the good graces of governments around the world. For example, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has blessed Street View. Switzerland and Germany have been the most vocal in opposing Street View. In Germany, Google agreed to erase source images on demand. In Switzerland, a dispute with Swiss data protection commissioner Hanspeter Thür hasn’t yet been resolved. But overall, there’s little sense that governments have the stomach to completely ban Street View.

In the US, the case Boring v. Google, Inc., 598 F.Supp.2d 695 (W.D. Pa. 2009), interpreting Pennsylvania law, found no cause of action for an invasion of privacy tort using either “intrusion upon seclusion” or “publicity given to private life” theories when Google took Street View photos of a private residence from a private road. Although some commentators have advocated a more activist interpretation of privacy torts that would take into account the unique problems with Street View, current law is not receptive to banning it.

Essentially, Google has repeatedly deflected privacy concerns by being willing to make minor changes to Street View. Although this hasn’t silenced the major critics, Google has been remarkably successful in converting regulatory agencies and key decision makers.

What Are The Privacy Concerns?

Street View typifies the current trend in privacy issues that we’ve been discussing in class: information that is normally innocuous becomes recorded, digitized, and publicized on the Internet. Because of its accessibility, the data can be used in harmful ways. Just as a drunken bar night photos that would have been of no consequence 20 years ago can now be posted to Facebook and then easily seen by employers, Street View images of people or buildings have the potential to be used in bad ways. Face blurring may avoid the privacy issues with people going into sex shops or vomiting, but it doesn’t address the concerns of many homeowners that Street View will be used by robbers to case their houses in preparation for a heist.

This seems like an odd position, doesn't it? Thieves would be better off going to look, because street view is way too little to go upon. This has more the feeling of an excuse than a reason for opposition.

And, just as we’ve drawn a distinction in class between protecting a big secret and allowing corporations to data mine you, perhaps the bigger threat here is targeted marketing to homeowners based on photos of their digs. Driveway got potholes? The paving company will want to know. Exotic plants, dead grass? Maybe a landscaper would pay for the information. Of course, it was always possible to drive around neighborhoods and get the same information. But it wasn’t digitized and publicized, and therefore easily cross-indexed with other data.

For a local service provider, physical presence seems a much better idea unless you have great economies of scale ("we are surveying every backyard in the county,") in which case street view is probably less useful than satellite imagery. A more interesting question is why street view so much concerns people who haven't mentioned the Google Maps satellite photos of their properties.

In addition to the privacy concerns raised by third parties’ use of Street View, Google also has the opportunity to profile how Street View is browsed. Just as Facebook is able to predict affairs from knowing which users stalk others, Google, if it wanted to, could profile its users. Google already offers users contextualized local search results when viewing a location in Google Maps. Arguably, there’s not much more that Google knows about you from the fact that you viewed an area in street view than from a bird’s eye view, but if it stores detailed history then patterns may emerge which can be commercially exploited.

What Should Be Done?

As is typical with new data collections, privacy concerns are sidelined because the data has a lot of utility. Street View is undoubtedly useful for many completely legitimate research problems, and the proper solution has to let it exist in some form.

On the horizon is the specter of collecting real time satellite or aerial photography, Enemy of the State-style. Additionally, as more people use Street View and combine it with other data, many of the alarmist scenarios will come true. Some criminals WILL use it to rob a mansion; some companies WILL deliver targeted marketing to homeowners.

How should individuals and governments respond?

As Professor Moglen has suggested, individuals can use self help. Here, they could proactively use Google’s built-in system to block Street View images. But this requires quite a high level of involvement – people have to know about Street View, find themselves or their property, and then submit the report. Privacy will still end up being compromised simply through apathy.

Governments can insist that Google keep all existing privacy safeguards in place when adding Street View data for new countries. Additionally, they can press for a more explicit policy on responding to user-reported problems. Ideally, Google would operate under a clear, codified policy to take down reported images swiftly.

None of this, however, would change the fundamental dynamics of Street View. Because of its substantial utility, most people and governments will accept an intrusion into privacy. They don’t have the same uncompromising attitude towards privacy that Professor Moglen has. There is no political will, even in Europe, to completely ban it. Street View will become another piece of the data mining ecosystem that is available to public and private entities.

The nightmare scenarios you envision regarding data aggregation using Street View seem to depend on Street View’s ability to provide up to date images, which are frequently refreshed and analyzed for visual data. Absent the use of satellite view in lieu of street view, such content collection and analysis seems practically impossible for the time being. Assuming faces are blurred to preserve the anonymity of those people on the street, what threat does a stale image of a house or a storefront pose?

I find your points regarding criminals using Street View to case locations to be particularly unpersuasive. Street View images cannot provide accurate information regarding burglar alarms, daily routines, etc. Street View may help identify a potential target, but it is no substitute for real casing. Nevertheless, it does not take a criminal mastermind to obtain all of the information that Street View can provide. Anyone can drive by the front of a house and make a guess about the relative value of its contents based on the neighborhood that it is in and its appearance.

-- StephenClarke - 30 Nov 2009

Thanks for your comment, Stephen. Your points are well-taken. Would you be more on guard if images were updated monthly? Weekly? With a small, autonomous, dragonfly-sized robotic helicopter, say? There's no doubt that the tech is primitive right now, but it's only going to get better.

-- GavinSnyder - 2 Dec 2009


I am slightly more sympathetic to your position than Stephen; in as much as Google Street View makes available what otherwise would have usually required some sort of in-person/drive-by casing, it has the potential to aid criminals. Not just by assessing value of contents, though it could assist in that as well (perhaps it caught you carrying your new TV inside one day), but also as letting people see what kind of windows you have, whether there are security signs on the property, whether you have a dog in the yard at the time, etc. So yes, it is a possible tool, even though as Stephen correctly notes (and I don't read your essay to disagree here) you could get the same info by driving by and snapping a picture. You and the article you link are not the only sources that have suggested a possible criminal use.

But I do agree with Stephen's general suggestion that you try and enhance the case for the harms of Google Street View since we are not yet to dragonfly-sized robots, and the data-mining aspect would require a lot of coding for relevant items (e.g. to effectively market Street View info to landscapers, wouldn't Google or someone else need to note which houses had exotic plants, which had potholes, and sell the tagged house info in bundles? That seems like a lot of work for non-realtime photos?).

Two things I particularly like about your piece, though, are that (1) it is proactive, identifying a potential problem before it is fully realized, and (2) it encourages knowledge in the public since, as you suggest, we don't as a society always realize what is happening to privacy. On both points, I commend your work.

-- BrianS - 3 Dec 2009

We all seem to be more or less on the same page about this essay of yours. The case for harms is weak standing alone, and the "larger picture"—which is about what happens when a private entity controls large resources of data consumers want to use about the circumstances of other peoples' lives—can't be gotten at in 1,000 words. But each piece in the mosaic is worth individual scrutiny.


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r7 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:10 - IanSullivan
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