Google Street View Not Spy Cam, Court Rules

Google Street View Not Spy Cam, Court Rules

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., February 2010

Third Circuit OKs Google Street View

An appellate court has given Google Street View the green light to to post images of private homes online. The case arose from a complaint by Aaron and Christine Boring, who claimed a violation of their privacy after images of their home and pool appeared on the Internet. The photos were taken, the Borings said, by a Google driver who entered their private driveway to take pictures.

Regardless, The Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the privacy claim finding, "No person of ordinary sensibilities would be shamed, humiliated, or have suffered mentally as a result of a vehicle entering into his or her ungated driveway and photographing the view from there."

The court added that if there is truth to the photographer/driveway accusation, the Borings may indeed have a valid trespass claim, but warned that any damages would likely be extremely low.

What are our privacy rights regarding our homes and even our faces?

For now at least, courts are looking at Google Street View under the same lens as traditional photos taken of homes from public streets or from above; that is, they are protected by the First Amendment/freedom of the press.

In Google's defense, the company has taken steps to ensure privacy of individuals. Google has taken to blurring faces visible in Street View and even met with domestic violence organizations to make sure it was adequately addressing privacy concerns.

Moreover, Google Street View does have a "Report Concern" button for users to signal Google that there is content they find objectionable. There has been no explanation as to why the Borings didn't pursue this avenue before filing suit, or, as the Third Circuit pointed out, eliminate their address from pleadings or file under seal. Their "failure to take readily available steps to protect their own privacy and mitigate their alleged pain suggests to the Court that the intrusion and the their suffering were less severe than they contend."

But what if companies want to start zooming in and peeking inside homes?

Cyberlawyer Venkat Balasubramani of Seattle has been quoted as saying that if a high-powered zoom lens were involved, courts might look at things differently; of course in that situation, cameras would be going beyond the “in plain view”, First Amendment barrier.

As advances in technology in continue, it is likely that we'll see some legislative changes regarding what companies can and cannot do regarding private citizens and and privacy rights. Until then: smile, you're on Google Street View.