No more sunbathing – is privacy dead?

This came home to me a few days ago when my 14 yr. old daughter had me watch it – she showed me the street we live on, and crystal clear views of our house, our driveway, the ladder leaning on the fence, and even my Chevy Cavalier that had been totaled. The picture was taken last summer, but it was eerie to “drive” up and down your street, the street of my ex (and my ex-house), and even up to the gates of my ex’s mother’s gated community – even though the gates were open, they apparently can’t enter such a place. It was rather unsettling – just like the satellite images I saw when I placed our address in the search bar – a friend from Germany could identify it by the parking lot behind out fence, the car in front, etc. And what if I had been sunbathing – not a pretty sight at my age and weight, but I have the “illusion”, the operative word here, of complete privacy in my backyard, surrounded by 6-ft fences. Now I wouldn’t go top-less, but I still wouldn’t want anyone to see me in a bathing suit, or similar revealing apparel! So here is the story behind this, first from my local news:

GOOGLE PUTS PICTURES OF YOUR HOUSE ONLINE

04:10 PM MST on Saturday, February 16, 2008

KTVB.COM


See how it works

BOISE – If you live in Ada County, chances are a truck loaded with computers and camera gear has roamed past your house snapping pictures as it goes along.

Google launched its Street View service last May to a few select cities – and now the program has hit the Treasure Valley. A vehicle went slowly down many streets in Ada County, methodically taking pictures and recording the precise location of the image.

Engineers at Google take all the images and data and translate it to an easy-to-use overlay on the company’s popular Google Maps site.

The Boise images became available on Tuesday, along with Albany, NY, Salt Lake City, UT, Juneau, AK, Kansas City, KS, Milwaukee, WI, San Antonio, TX, Raleigh, NC and Manchester, NH. The latest cities bring the count to 33.

The photos appear to have been taken this summer – with lush green grass and full trees.

Users can even scroll from photo to photo, giving the sensation they are walking down the street.

Most areas in Boise, Eagle, Star, Meridian, Garden City and Kuna are covered – though there are sizable gaps in southeast and northwest Boise, and a few spotty areas mixed in.

Some are concerned about privacy and Google told the New York Times that it allows a user to request an image be removed. Google also noted to the newspaper that it only features imagery taken on public property.

Click over to Google Maps. Once there, type in Boise, ID – and click the “Street View” button in the upper right hand side of the map. You can type in an address, or use the map to navigate to a location – then click the Street View link. Click and drag the photos to move around.”

http://www.ktvb.com/sharedcontent/newslink/thumbnail/ktvb/087/googlemaps_3181-t240.jpg

Street View car 3

Picture of car and camera

Now all are NOT happy in the land of Googleville:

Get ready for your close-up

Google’s acclaimed, criticized Street View bears down on Boston

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff / December 11, 2007

Google Inc.’s controversial Street View feature, which offers 360-degree, street-level images of urban life so clear that passersby often can be identified, is set to make its Boston debut this morning.

Starting at around 10 a.m., Internet users who click on the “Street View” box on Google Maps (maps.google.com), will be able to peek at images from streets in Boston and surrounding communities. The views were stitched together from images taken by Google employees over the past year from cars and vans equipped with cameras.

The feature, which already captures street scenes in 15 cities across the country, has become popular among people planning vacations, searching for shops or restaurants, or checking out landmarks such as Wrigley Field in Chicago or the Empire State Building in New York. But it drew howls of protests from privacy advocates when it was launched last May in San Francisco, where people complained about everything from photos of recognizable men entering adult bookstores to an image of a cat in a window.

“We take privacy concerns seriously,” said Stephen Chau, product manager for Google Maps. “All these images are taken on public streets. It’s exactly what you could see walking down the street.”

But while Google has developed technology that can obscure faces and license plate numbers in Street View images, the Mountain View, Calif., company has said it will blur faces and plate numbers only in countries where it is required to do so, not in the United States.

Street View’s rollout in Boston is part of a larger debut of the feature today in eight more cities, including Providence, Dallas, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Google officials yesterday said they could not specify which Boston or suburban streets would be visible. The service covers only certain streets and neighborhoods in the cites where it’s now available, although in some locations, such as San Francisco, the majority of streets have been photographed. Google plans eventually to extend Street View to cities and towns of all sizes worldwide.

Google is also introducing a “mashup” service today that will enable Internet users to import Street View panoramas from particular streets or neighborhoods to their own websites or blogs. The service is intended to make it easier for people to use Street View to recommend sights, locate coffee shops, or design cyber-walking tours.

While those might be legitimate uses of Street View, the feature also has the potential to be used for more questionable pursuits, such as compiling digital dossiers on individuals, critics warned.

“As Google gets closer and closer to its stated goal of indexing all the world’s information, more and more issues arise,” said John G. Palfrey Jr., executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “In the privacy realm, Google is asking people for a lot of trust. The ball is really in Google’s court to prove they’re not going to violate people’s privacy.”

Google's Street View

A sample of Google’s Street View feature. The company says it will not blur faces and plate numbers in its US street images.

Other companies also have released products in the drive-by image space, including EveryScape Inc. in Waltham and Povo Inc. in Boston. EveryScape moved up its launch to the same day as Google’s to capitalize on the publicity generated by the larger company.

Street View does what it’s intended to do very well,” said Jim Schoonmaker, the EveryScape chief executive. “But they’re focused on streets. We’ve been up and down ski mountains, on beaches, and in and out of businesses like restaurants and dental offices.”

Images from Street View and similar services are not live. They capture a point in time when sections of city streets were photographed, typically over a period of months, by small teams of Google employees driving in company cars with roof-mounted cameras equipped with global positioning technology that digitally matches the images with their locations on a map. The company hopes to refresh its images to document changing streets, but its highest priority has been expanding to new cities, Chau said.

Internet users visiting Street View are shown a map of the United States and can click on icons shaped like cameras to view cities Google has photographed. From there, they can type in a street address or call up blue-outlined streets to view images that can be rotated and zoomed in.

Google, in refusing to blur faces in US cities, has faced a chorus of critics in cities already catalogued in Street View, such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, who have called on the company to install technology that will make people pictured more anonymous. One of Street View’s critics, Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group focusing on technology issues, was photographed on Street View smoking on his way to work in San Francisco.

“That was of concern to me because not all of my family knew I smoked,” Bankston said. Google ultimately removed the image at his request, but Bankston said the incident demonstrated the potential for worse abuse if other people were photographed going to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, health clinics for sensitive procedures, or other places that could compromise their privacy. He said he felt the Google feature was part of an ominous trend that included people taking pictures of others with camera phones and posting them on the Internet.

http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2007/12/11/get_ready_for_your_close_up/

Protests accompany Google’s expansion of Street View

By Robert Weisman, The Boston Globe, December 11, 2007

Despite protests from privacy advocates, Google on Tuesday introduced its Street View feature for eight more U.S. cities, offering 360-degree, street-level images of urban life so clear that passers-by often can be identified.

The feature is available on Google Maps, which had captured street scenes in 15 American cities before the expansion Tuesday.

It has become popular among people planning vacations, searching for shops or restaurants, or checking out landmarks.

But it drew protests from privacy advocates when it was introduced in May in San Francisco, where people complained about everything from the clear photos of men entering adult bookstores to an image of a cat in a window.

“We take privacy concerns seriously,” said Stephen Chau, product manager for Google Maps. “All these images are taken on public streets. It’s exactly what you could see walking down the street.”

The views were stitched together from images taken by Google employees over the past year from cars and vans equipped with cameras. But while Google has developed technology that can obscure faces and license plate numbers in Street View images, the company has said it will blur those images only in countries where it is required to do so, not in the United States.

The eight new cities are Boston; Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas, Indianapolis; Detroit; Minneapolis; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Providence, Rhode Island. The service covers only certain streets and neighborhoods in the cites where it is available, although in some cities, like San Francisco, the majority of streets have been photographed.

Google said it would extend Street View to cities and towns of all sizes worldwide.

Google is also introducing a “mashup” service Tuesday that would enable Internet users to import Street View panoramas from particular streets or neighborhoods to their own Web sites or blogs. The service is intended to make it easier for people to use Street View to recommend sights, locate coffee shops, or design virtual walking tours.

Critics warn that while those might be legitimate uses of Street View, the feature also has the potential to be used for more questionable pursuits, like compiling digital dossiers on individuals.

“As Google gets closer and closer to its stated goal of indexing all the world’s information, more and more issues arise,” said John Palfrey Jr., executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “In the privacy realm, Google is asking people for a lot of trust. The ball is really in Google’s court to prove they’re not going to violate people’s privacy.”

Images from Street View and similar services are not live. They capture a point in time when sections of city streets were photographed, typically over a period of months. Small teams of Google employees take the pictures from vehicles with roof-mounted cameras equipped with global positioning technology that digitally match the images with their locations on a map. The company hopes to refresh its images to document changing streets, but its highest priority has been expanding to new cities, Chau said.

Internet users visiting Street View are shown a map of the United States and can click on icons shaped like cameras to view cities Google has photographed. From there, they can type in a street address or call up blue-outlined streets to view images that can be rotated and zoomed in.

Google, in refusing to blur faces of individuals in U.S. cities, has faced a chorus of critics in cities already catalogued in Street View, including New York, and Chicago, who have called on the company to install technology that makes people pictured more anonymous.

One of Street View’s critics, Kevin Bankston, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group focusing on technology issues, was photographed on Street View smoking on his way to work in San Francisco.

“That was of concern to me because not all of my family knew I smoked,” Bankston said.

Google ultimately removed the image at his request, but Bankston said the incident demonstrated the potential for worse abuse if other people were photographed going to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, health clinics for sensitive procedures, or other places that could compromise their privacy. He said he felt the Google feature was part of an ominous trend that included people taking pictures of others with camera phones and posting them on the Internet.

“Rather than a Big Brother scenario, we’re looking at a Little Brother scenario where more and more of us are surveilling each other,” Bankston warned. “That is a trend that is fraught with a level of privacy risk that we as a society have not yet come to grips with.”

Google’s Chau, however, said that while Street View critics have been vocal, the company has received no more than a couple of dozen requests from people seeking to remove pictures of themselves since the Street View feature was launched last spring.

“This hasn’t been a big concern among our users,” he said. “The biggest complaint is the service isn’t available in their city yet.” http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/12/11/technology/street.php?page=1

GOOGLE COMES TO TOWN, ALONG WITH SOME PRIVACY CONCERNS

2/1/08 by Stu Woo, Brown Daily Herald

Minsuk Kim ’08, seen here on Google Street View, walks down Williams Street with a friend. Media Credit: Courtesy of Google, Inc.

One day last fall, Minsuk Kim ’08 put on a teal sweater, gray pants and black shoes. He and a friend then walked east on Williams Street, around the corner from Kim’s apartment.Kim doesn’t recall this particular incident. But Google does.

On Dec. 11, the search engine giant introduced a service called “Street View” to Providence. The feature, integrated with the popular Google Maps, allows Internet users to get a panoramic view of most Providence street addresses.

Google says that Street View is a practical tool allowing users to, say, see if parking is available around an address or to find the name of a business they passed by. But critics complain the product is invasive and smacks of “Big Brother,” since Street View takes such clear photos – many of which include distinguishable shots of unsuspecting passersby.

Like Kim, who didn’t notice anyone or anything photographing him. He didn’t even know his likeness was on Street View until a friend sent him a text message over winter break, telling him to check out Williams Street.

So Kim went online. There he was, walking toward either his friend’s house or a liquor store, he says. He laughed when he saw the image, which was clear enough for any acquaintance to recognize him.

“I just think it’s funny,” Kim says. “I also wasn’t doing anything incriminating, but I could see how it could be a problem.”

“Don’t Be Evil”

When Google first introduced Street View last May, the Mountain View, Calif., company imagined it as a way to further “understand the world through images.”

“With Street View, you can virtually explore city neighborhoods by viewing and navigating within 360-degree scenes of street-level imagery,” wrote Stephen Chau, Street View’s product manager, in a Google blog entry introducing the tool. “It feels as if you’re walking down the street!”

With Street View, which debuted in five cities and is now in 23, Google introduced a technology that seemed unfathomable just a few years ago. Though Amazon.com and other companies have attempted similar projects, Street View is by far the most advanced, since it seamlessly stitches images together to create a virtual street.

Google uses regular cars, equipped with “imaging technology,” to collect images and location data as they drive down public streets, wrote Elaine Filadelfo, a Google spokeswoman, in an e-mail. Filadelfo added that the vehicles have the “Google Maps” logo on them.

Street View is simple to use. Users enter a street address in Google Maps and, if the feature is enabled for that particular location, click “Street View.” They will then see a panoramic shot of that location and can virtually move up or down a street using the arrow buttons.

Filadelfo wrote that Street View images are usually a couple of months to a year old when they are uploaded. Google plans to update its Street View images in the future, she added, and is currently working on adding high-definition photos in a “wide variety of cities.”

Those high-definition photos may not sit well with critics who say Street View already intrudes too much on individual rights. Though the product breaks no laws for the most part – after all, the images are shot from public property – it raises serious ethical questions, says Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“Something like Google Street View really is the first step in a feeling that we’re being recorded in everything we do,” Jeschke says. “Generally, we can expect a certain amount of anonymity (in public places). This shows a real change to that, and that’s disturbing.”

Street View can be potentially embarrassing. When the feature debuted last year, bloggers posted some of their favorite images: of sunbathers, of people entering or leaving strip clubs and even one of a man who appears to be breaking into a house.

“You shouldn’t have to think about whether or not you’re on camera when you’re going to the doctor or perhaps going to drug treatment,” Jeschke says. She adds that a journalist found a Street View image of Kevin Bankston, one of Jeschke’s co-workers, smoking, “a habit that he’s not proud of.”

Bankston, a lawyer for the EFF, has urged Google to make it easier for people to remove photos of themselves on Street View. Jeschke says this still doesn’t totally solve the problem, since most people wouldn’t know where they would have been photographed. She believes Google should make it a priority to blur faces or remove people from photographs. The company should have the technology to do that, she says, since it has the “best programmers in the country.”

Filadelfo wrote that Google “takes privacy very seriously.” The company has set up a simple, online process that allows clearly-identified individuals to request that their photos be removed.

Google, whose informal corporate motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” currently doesn’t have any plans to automatically blur faces in Street View, Filadelfo wrote, though she added that the laws may “vary by country to abide by local laws and cultural norms.” Social networking blog Mashable.com reported on Nov. 30 that Street View will blur all faces and license plates in its European version when it launches.” http://media.www.browndailyherald.com/media/storage/paper472/news/2008/02/01/Features/Google.Comes.To.Town.Along.With.Some.Privacy.Concerns-3183023.shtml

And From Wikipedia:

Google Street View is a feature of Google Maps introduced in 2007 that provides 360° panoramic street-level views and allows users to view parts of selected cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas at ground level. When it was launched on May 25, 2007, only five cities were included. It has since expanded to 23 cities, and includes the suburbs of many, and in some cases, other nearby cities.Google Street View, when operated, displays photos that were previously taken by a camera mounted on an automobile, and can be navigated using either the arrow keys on the keyboard or by using the mouse to click on arrows displayed on the screen. Using these devices, the photos can be viewed in different sizes, from any direction, and from a variety of angles. Lines that are displayed along the street that is shown indicate the direction followed by that street.”

“This feature of Google has raised privacy concerns, with views found to show men leaving strip clubs, protesters at an abortion clinic, sunbathers in bikinis, and other activities. Google maintains that the photos were taken from public property. Before launching the service, Google removed photos of domestic violence shelters, and allows users to flag inappropriate or sensitive imagery for Google to review and remove. The process for requesting that an image be removed is not trivial. Images of potential break-ins, sunbathers and individuals entering adult bookstores have, for example, remained active and these images have been widely republished.

In Europe, the creation of Google Street View may not be legal in all places. While the laws vary from country to country, many countries in Europe have laws prohibiting the unconsented filming of an individual on public property for the purpose of public display.

Google has delayed the release of its street views of Washington, D.C. and other nearby areas of Virginia and Maryland (including Baltimore) out of concern from the United States Department of Homeland Security that some of the images taken may be of security-sensitive areas.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Street_View

Google Fails Privacy Study, Criticizes Watchdog Group

By Luke O’Brien, June 11, 2007

Googlelogo_4_2 When Privacy International, a UK-based watchdog group, released a study on Friday ranking the privacy practices of major internet companies, Google may already have known it would wind up dead last, saddled with an overall “hostile to privacy” rating that took into account Google’s data retention policies and recent purchase of online advertising company DoubleClick. Privacy International, for its part, already knew that ranking Google last and below a company such as Microsoft would cause a backlash:

“We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google’s approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations. While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy. This is in part due to the diversity and specificity of Google’s product range and the ability of the company to share extracted data between these tools, and in part it is due to Google’s market dominance and the sheer size of its user base. Google’s status in the ranking is also due to its aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques.

The view that Google “opens up” information through a range of attractive and advanced tools does not exempt the company from demonstrating responsible leadership in privacy. Google’s increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user’s life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook. Neither of these elements has been demonstrated. Rather, we have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent. These dynamics do not pervade other major players such as Microsoft or eBay, both of which have made notable improvements to the corporate ethos on privacy issues.”

Of course, the watchdog group was right. Google immediately cried foul, claiming that Privacy International has a conflict of interest because one of its board members works for Microsoft. Privacy International responded yesterday with an open letter to Google, explaining its position. (the member of its 70-person board in question has been working with Privacy International for six years before taking a job with Microsoft, at which time he offered to resign from PI.)

Does Google have a legitimate beef or do its actions, as PI suggests, “stem from sour grapes that [it] achieved the lowest ranking amongst the Internet giants?” Decide for yourself.”

http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/06/google_fails_pr.html

A Race to the Bottom:
Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies

image

A Consultation report

“Why Google?

We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google’s approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations. While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy. This is in part due to the diversity and specificity of Google’s product range and the ability of the company to share extracted data between these tools, and in part it is due to Google’s market dominance and the sheer size of its user base. Google’s status in the ranking is also due to its aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques.

The view that Google “opens up” information through a range of attractive and advanced tools does not exempt the company from demonstrating responsible leadership in privacy. Google’s increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user’s life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook. Neither of these elements has been demonstrated. Rather, we have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent. These dynamics do not pervade other major players such as Microsoft or eBay, both of which have made notable improvements to the corporate ethos on privacy issues.

In the closing days of our research we received a copy of supplemental material relating to a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission concerning the pending merger between Google and DoubleClick. This material, submitted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and coupled with a submission to the FTC from the New York State Consumer Protection Board, provided additional weight for our assessment that Google has created the most onerous privacy environment on the Internet. The Board expressed concern that these profiles expose consumers to the risk of disclosure of their data to third-parties, as well as public disclosure as evidence in litigation or through data breaches. The EPIC submission set out a detailed analysis of Google’s existing data practices, most of which fell well short of the standard that consumers might expect. During the course of our research the Article 29 Working Group of European privacy regulators also expressed concern at the scale of Google’s activities, and requested detailed information from the company.

In summary, Google’s specific privacy failures include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Google’s services must accept that the company retains a large quantity of information about that user, often for an unstated or indefinite length of time, without clear limitation on subsequent use or disclosure, and without an opportunity to delete or withdraw personal data even if the user wishes to terminate the service.
  • Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many US based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view amongst privacy experts that 18 to 24 months is unacceptable, and possibly unlawful in many parts of the world.
  • Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut. Google often maintains these records even after a user has deleted his profile or removed information from Orkut.
  • Google collects all search results entered through Google Toolbar and identifies all Google Toolbar users with a unique cookie that allows Google to track the user’s web movement.17 Google does not indicate how long the information collected through Google Toolbar is retained, nor does it offer users a data expungement option in connection with the service.
  • Google fails to follow generally accepted privacy practices such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines and elements of EU data protection law. As detailed in the EPIC complaint, Google also fails to adopted additional privacy provisions with respect to specific Google services.
  • Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.
  • Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.”

http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-553961

REQUEST FOR URBAN STREET SIGHTINGS: Submit and Vote on the Best Urban Images Captured by New Google Maps Tool

By Ryan Singel, May 30, 2007

Google’s new Street View, a new Google Maps feature that uses vehicle-cameras to take 360-degree street level views of major urban areas, captured all sorts of urban ephemera in the process from tabbies in windows to red light runners.

Help Wired News capture the best inadvertent urban snapshots. Submit and vote on your favorite urban scenes — be they citizens flaunting the laws or hot dog vendors rocking a sweet style. You can find some inspiration and examples here, New York shots here, and the well named streetviewr.com has some good links, too.”

image

“Maybe the guy just forgot his keys. Or he’s practicing for the free climbing contest. Hey, is that a lockpicking set dangling out of his pocket?”

http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/05/request_for_urb.html

Domestic Access to Spy Imagery Expands

By EILEEN SULLIVAN, February 12, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — “A plan to use U.S. spy satellites for domestic security and law-enforcement missions is moving forward after being delayed for months because of privacy and civil liberties concerns.

The charter and legal framework for an office within the Homeland Security Department that would use overhead and mapping imagery from existing satellites is in the final stage of completion, according to a department official who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about it….

Domestic agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Interior Department have had access to this satellite imagery for years for scientific research, to assist in response to natural disasters like hurricanes and fires, and to map out vulnerabilities during a major public event like the Super Bowl. Since 1974 the requests have been made through the federal interagency group, the Civil Applications Committee.

These types of uses will continue when the Homeland Security Department oversees the program and becomes the clearinghouse for these requests. But the availability of satellite images will be expanded to other agencies to support the homeland security mission. The details of how law enforcement agencies could use the images during investigations would be determined in the future after legal and policy questions have been resolved, the official said.

It is possible that in the future an agency might request infrared imaging of what is inside a house, for instance a methamphetamine laboratory, and this could raise constitutional issues. In these instances, law enforcement agencies would still have to go through the normal process of obtaining a warrant and satisfying all the legal requirements. The National Applications Office also would require that all the laws are observed when using new imaging technology….”

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gM4mwPQcU0j446qIew8P7ZmifwNgD8UP4GG03

GOOGLE’S STREET VIEW UPSETS PRIVACY ADVOCATES

By Josh Gerstein, Staff Reporter of the Sun June 13, 2007

Google’s new Street View service, which allows users to pull up street-level, 360-degree photos of addresses in major urban areas, is cool and more than a little creepy, but is it legal?

The Web site’s high-tech photo vans have captured and posted shots of a pair of scantily clad sunbathers on Stanford’s campus, a man entering an adult bookstore, and a woman’s thong underwear being exposed as she climbed into a truck.

Privacy advocates are in an uproar over the service, but Google and its defenders have declared confidently that the firm is in the clear because anyone has the right to publish photos taken from public streets.

“The images in Street View are lawful. The Street View feature only contains imagery gathered on public property,” a spokeswoman for Google, Megan Quinn, said in a statement sent by e-mail to the Sun. “This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.”

Legal experts say there is no hard-and-fast legal rule that blesses all public photography. “Privacy laws vary from state to state, but there have been instances where legal liability was found even for photos taken in public,” an attorney urging changes to Street View, Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.”

Usually, people doing things in public, even foolish or embarrassing things, are deemed to have waived their privacy rights. The situation becomes more complicated, though, when a person is put in an embarrassing position through no fault of his or her own. Crime or accident victims often feel violated by news photos, but courts almost always throw out suits over such episodes on the grounds that the images were newsworthy. Even when news value is debatable, judges tend to side with the press.

However, the woman whose so-called whale tail was posted by Google for all to see was not part of any newsworthy event. The episode is almost identical to one of the best-known cases punishing a newspaper for a photo that invaded privacy. In 1961, an Alabama woman, Flora Graham, was visiting a county fair’s funhouse with her young sons when air jets blew her dress up, exposing her panties. Unfortunately for Ms. Graham, a photographer snapped a shot at that very moment and the image showed up on the local newspaper’s front page.

A jury gave Ms. Graham $4,166 for her anguish, and the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the verdict. “One who is part of a public scene may lawfully be photographed as an incidental part of that scene in his ordinary status,” the court wrote. “Where the status he expects to occupy is changed without his volition to a status embarrassing to an ordinary person of reasonable sensitivity, then he should not be deemed to have forfeited his right to be protected from an indecent and vulgar intrusion of his right of privacy merely because misfortune overtakes him in a public place.”

Of course, four decades later, social mores and technology have changed. “Anything done almost anywhere can be captured as an image on someone’s cell phone and uploaded to the Internet,” the dean of the University of Richmond law school, Rodney Smolla, said. “That genie can’t be put back in the bottle. I think the law would be reluctant to fight against it.”

Still, just last year, a lawyer for Lindsay Lohan, cited the funhouse case while threatening a gossip Web site with legal action over a photo in which one of the actress’s nipples was exposed. “Just because a wardrobe malfunction occurred and Ms. Lohan’s right breast was inadvertently and very briefly revealed and someone was able to photograph her in this intrusive manner without her consent or knowledge does not justify or legitimize publication or display of the photo or justify this violation of Ms. Lohan’s right of privacy at a most basic level,” the attorney, Martin Singer, wrote.

Google does offer a link to request removal of inappropriate Street View photos. The thong shot is no longer on the Web giant’s site, though it is now readily available elsewhere, which makes its deletion from Google of little moment. “The privacy harm may very well have occurred by the time you are aware of it and ask that it be taken down,” Mr. Bankston said. “We would have preferred that Google develop some technology to obscure the pedestrians in Street View before debuting it.”

http://www.nysun.com/article/56475

Now it’s up to you to decide if this is helpful, interesting, or a step towards “Big Brother.” It all depends on the usage.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.