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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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.


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.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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