May 30, 2007 12:56 PM PDT

Cameras everywhere, even in online maps

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was surprised to see his face in a street-level image on a now defunct online map a few years ago.

Worse, he was photographed smoking outside the EFF offices in San Francisco, and he had been trying to hide his habit from his family.

That's a relatively benign incident, but it illustrates how easy it is for the technology to threaten an individual's privacy, Bankston said at the Where 2.0 conference here, where Google on Tuesday announced its new street-level map view. Google's feature allows users viewing San Francisco to zoom in close enough to read street signs and even see inside front windows.

"It is irresponsible for Google to debut a product like this without also debuting technological measures that would obscure the identities of people photographed by this product," he said. "If the Google van happened by your house at the right moment it could even capture you in an embarrassing state of undress, as you close your blinds, for example."

Personal indiscretions aside, the larger concern is for people entering and leaving places like domestic violence shelters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, fertility clinics and controversial religious or political events, Bankston said.

Google Street View

The Google map feature offers a way to request the removal of photos and will take down identifiable images if a person requests.

"Street View only features imagery taken on public property. This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "We provide easily accessible tools for flagging inappropriate or sensitive imagery for review and removal...We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery."

However, removing images of people after the fact doesn't entirely solve the problem, Bankston said. "That is of limited use if you don't know the image is on the site and by the time you find out, whatever privacy harm may already have occurred," he said.

Google removed photos of women's shelters before launching the feature, said Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence, which is the umbrella group for state shelters.

"We don't want to call attention to the shelters," Southworth said. "We would rather it look like a choppy horizon line as you pan by. Our hope is that other companies will do a similar thing and reach out to us in advance."

Removing the shelters from the map greatly diminishes the privacy threat to battered women, said Ashley Tan, volunteer coordinator at Woman Inc., a San Francisco-based 24-hour domestic violence crisis line. However, there is still a slim chance a stalker could see a victim's whereabouts. "If someone is obsessed with their victim it could be used as another tool, and it will be something we have to consider in safety planning," Tan said.

The block view that Amazon.com's A9 map showed is gone, along with A9 maps in general. One of those maps outed Bankston as a smoker.

Microsoft offers a bird's-eye view on its maps that doesn't show faces and other ground-level details. The company does have a preview of a street-level technology in San Francisco and Seattle, but it won't likely be launching that product publicly and is, in fact, looking at ways to obscure identifiable images like faces and license plates, according to several Microsoft executives.

"I don't think you'll ever see us do what Google is doing," said Erik Jorgensen, general manager for search and mapping at Microsoft. Such up-close imagery on maps might make sense for applications related to travel and real estate, but users don't need and don't necessarily want a picture-perfect world on the map, he said. "The feedback we got was that people like visuals as cues integrated into driving directions," rather than the "exploratory mode" that street-level offers, he said.

AOL's MapQuest offers only a satellite aerial view. Yahoo hasn't gone I-Spy on its maps either, and it doesn't sound like it will.

"It's a different approach to developing applications. Google puts out the technology and it's not clear what the use-case is," said Jeremy Kreitler, director of product management at Yahoo Maps. "Now that (map images) can see in your windows and not just your roof, there are privacy concerns."

As technology gets more advanced it gets harder for individuals to remain invisible, said Greg Sterling, online maps expert and founder of consultancy Sterling Market Intelligence. "In this world of ubiquitous imagery it's hard to avoid privacy issues," he said. "Relatively speaking, privacy has been eroded by all this readily discoverable information."

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15 comments

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Privacy?
Okay, so let me get this straight.

-Mr. Bankston is a smoker. So far, nothing wrong with that.
-Mr. Bankston is intent on hiding the fact that he's a smoker from his family. Trust issues and general lack of character abound right there.
-Mr. Bankston is upset that Google took a picture of him smoking, which immortalizes the secret he's been keeping from his family.

And he has the audacity to claim that his [i]privacy[/i] has been violated? Sounds like his morality is very situational and only applies when the circumstances inconvenience him directly. What right has he to point at Google for being "irresponsible"? His example of a Google van catching you doing something embarrassing in your house is non-topical, as well, because that's clearly in [b]private.[/b] Mr. Bankston's actions were in [b]public.[/b]
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Stalkers & Abusers, line up at Google Street View!
This will be a boon to the spousal abusers and stalkers of the
world. It will allow them to track, right down to whether their
victim's car is in the driveway, their target's activities at home.

This makes "casing a house" even easier for felons looking to
stage a break-in as well.

How nice of Google to think of the safety and well-being of the
American public.

If I see the Google Street View Van, I will have a very difficult
time keeping myself from throwing a blanket over it's viewports.
Or reporting them for violating my insurance agent's HIPAA
rights of privacy, for example. Or my wife's right to privacy in
our yard or inside our home, which could be "accidentally"
viewed by the van as it drives by (private property, invasion of
privacy).

Commercial use of the image of an individual is still a protected
thing, even on a public street in some states - and the
publication OF an individual's image for profit without proper
media releases being signed could, possibly lead to litigation as
well.

Wisconsin, for example, has some very sticky laws regarding
such unfair use of a person's image for commercial purposes as
I understand it.

It will be interesting to see what the various State's Attorneys
General will do with this, not to mention the various civil
liberties groups - especially after the first person gets killed
through the use of this "useful and harmless" product.

Darrow's Second Law states: "Common Sense Ain't. If It Was,
There'd Be A LOT More OF It Around!"

Google has just proved it with this product.

Google needs to rename itself. I nominate Big Brother for their
new name.

Anyone care to second the motion?
Posted by mstrhypno (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I just don't see it
I don't see how this will be a "boon to the spousal abusers and stalkers of the world". The images captured by the street view van will probably be at least a few days -- if not weeks -- old by the time they hit the site. There would be no way to know if someone was home or not at any given time based on this.

Your privacy concerns, on the other hand, have merit if the cameras are able to see inside windows of residences. Otherwise, there is no expectation of privacy on the street. After all, someone who knew Kevin Bankston's family could have just as easily seen him smoking on the street and told.
Posted by eBob1 (188 comments )
Link Flag
And google can use my
image, as long as they pay me the money. You have a great point, but I don't see how it would stop. Thanks to the tech sharing globalists(please read into this statement) of this world, all Google has to do is to move offshore. What could we do? Just be mad I guess. If we got most Americans to agree to protect ourselves instead of worrying what other people thought of us, we MAYBE could do something about it. Sadly, I believe it is too late for that now. Now, or in the very near future, some as*hole from where ever(please read into this statement, too) will be able to know what you are doing and when you are doing it without the permission or knowledge of the U.S. government or its citizens.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Link Flag
No likely
"It will allow them to track, right down to whether their victim's car is in the driveway, their target's activities at home."

These images will quickly become stale and considering the investment it's unlikely these images will updated a great deal. So I don't think it's anymore a boon that MapQuest and the telephone book.

"This makes "casing a house" even easier for felons looking to stage a break-in as well."

Unlikely, the view is somewhat limited for that purpose. Besides anyone can photo graph a houses from the street.


"If I see the Google Street View Van, I will have a very difficult time keeping myself from throwing a blanket over it's viewports."

You might have an easier time after words cause you'd probably be arrested.


"Or reporting them for violating my insurance agent's HIPAA rights of privacy, for example. Or my wife's right to privacy in our yard or inside our home, which could be "accidentally" viewed by the van as it drives by (private property, invasion of privacy)."

HIPAA doesn't even apply in this case. You don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your yard if it's clearly visible from public land (the street in this case) Hester v. U.S., 265 U.S. 57 (1924). As for the inside of your home, the fact that it was open to view from the street by anyone would likely limit any claim of invasion of privacy.


"Commercial use of the image of an individual is still a protected thing, even on a public street in some states - and the publication OF an individual's image for profit without proper media releases being signed could, possibly lead to litigation as well."

Of course the problem with those laws is that in most cases you must demonstrate that your image has a commercial value. Unless you're a celebrity this usually proves to be quite difficult.


"Attorneys General will do with this, not to mention the various civil liberties groups - especially after the first person gets killed through the use of this "useful and harmless" product. Darrow's Second Law states: "Common Sense Ain't."

I am not sure there is much the Attorneys General can do with it. I am not sure how anyone would killed through Street View. Google is not the first to do this (off photographs from street level) though they are probably the biggest.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
Link Flag
Am I Spying on me?
I hope there is only a minute % of folks that are surprised by this technology. It has been going on for quite a while, in the form of Toll Booth cams, cams at intersections, live cam of Mardi Gras, the list goes on.....cams in elevators...and before that, the helicopters in the sky, the debit cards, the grocery store cards,any credit card, "They" already know more about you,than you may know. Renting an Adult film late one night? 1). your on camera 2). If you used a check or credit card, "they" even know what your into, sexually. and the time of day/night..To go one small step furthera case could be made showing when you like sex, what kind of sex,you like,and how often.
Wake up, please, don't be alarmed by this. did anyone really not see this coming? I love America, and will fight until I can fight no more, But... again... what would you expect, from a government gone ary? We are so lost we don't respect our own laws anymore. We just lost a major engagement with Mexico. We let illeagles break our law,we even welcome them.Free medical, while they spit in our faces, and their leader keeps spouting indignities at my leader. and we allow them to take from our system, with no giving back. We have been outwitted by the Mexicans, and now 1000's are overrunning our borders, daily, like ants, illeaglly, without respect,and burning American Flags,and who knows how many baby rapers there are amongst them? We probably have them vidioed, though. Think about it.
Posted by deliman (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
No, no one is
surprised, or at least shouldn't be, however, this is a global issue, not a national one. Even if the U.S. made it illegal to participate in the technology, it would still happen. Our laws only extend to our borders. The apple has already been bitten and the box already open.

With respect to the border, no, we haven't lost. In fact, I am optimistic about the outcome. While the minority is the loudest, in the end, the majority will have its way. While, I do not agree with the insect analogy, I understand your frustration and know that no nation, however conceived, can stand long without respect to the law and order in the public surroundings. But, most importantly it is necessary to love the nation in which one is residing for the bounty that it does provide. For those that wish to come here and spew their hatred for the things that I hold dear, (my God, my country, my people), I stand ready to send them wherever their leisure would take them. (Hell or their homeland.)
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Link Flag
Spruceman
The privacy thing is moot here. These cams are not peering into houses. They are taking the same pics you or any other person walking down the street can take. If I'm smoking a cigarette, having a drink, or engaging in sex on the front lawn, I would have no more reasonable expectation of privacy than if I were doing these things on the National Mall on July 4th or in the median strip of a nearby interstate highway. OTOH if they should happen to put their cameras right up to my windows and take advantage of a tiny tear in the window shade to view inside the house, that's entirely an invasion of privacy.
Posted by spruceman (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So you don't mind if I ...
... hang out in front of your house, take pictures of you coming and going, pictures of any visitors you may be having, and follow you around on public streets with my camera clicking? Might seem more extreme than google maps, but all falls into the acceptable expectation of privacy indicated by your comment.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
What about
behind your privacy fence? Would that be ok too? The fact that you can be tracked, without law, is an offense and ill warranted. Should anyone have the ability to track or "stalk" anyone? I think not. Not our citizens. Can we do anything about it now? No, probably not. Maybe later, thanks to the tech sharing globalists, all of us can share.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Link Flag
Google Street View is great.
Google Street View is the greatest map tool. Kevin Bankston is overreacting to this great feature. Individual's privacy is not threaten here. Google Street View photographs only the public space not private space.

This mapping tool is very useful. One can get virtual viewpoint of the places a person must go to. By looking at virtual 360 viewpoint, a person would have photographic picture of the destination.
Posted by lee9372 (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Once Again--More "Free" content for the Final Library
Google's street view is more content that people have to catch them using to make them take down. But wait...Street View isn't a copyright issue, it's a privacy issue. No DMCA "safe harbor" (if that law even applies to Google).

So where is it written that Google gets to look inside your house until you tell them to stop?
Posted by Chris Castle (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Do no evil...
I hope people are finally waking up to the reality that Google is just another big company trying to make a buck even if it costs us our privacy. Google is no better than any other big corporation. I just can't wait for the Google-sycophants to finally realise.
Posted by a85 (104 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Shocked at EFF's position
I have a right to take pictures in the public space and I have a right to post those pictures online. And so does Google.

If EFF doesn't support that online right of mine then EFF is not for me.

I can't believe EFF is pandering to ninnies that don't like the fact that they voluntarily and knowingly expose themselves to the public sphere. If the cat lady doesn't like people being able to see in her window, then she should close the curtains. If whiny secretive EFF boy doesn't like being caught smoking, he shouldn't smoke in front of the building. (Or he should, you know, QUIT.)

It's not Google's fault you did something stupid or embarrassing or "secret" or "personal" while *in public.* It's your own. Own up to it. Don't do private things in public, and don't rely on a big glass window to protect your privacy.

There is lots of precedent on taking and publishing pictures of public scenes and other things that are visible from the street. EFF's lawyers ought to be well versed in it.
Posted by romulusnr (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I disagree with EFF's position
There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, the courts have recognized as much. As for those worried about an accidental photo of the inside of their home I would suggest shear curtains or a shade. I think the EFF's postion on this is absurd.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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