Google Street View Privacy Issues Raised Again

Google Street View Privacy Issues Raised Again

by Heleigh Bostwick, June 2011

Internet giant Google stirs up more controversy as it expands its Google Maps with Street View technology around the globe, most recently in India.

Less than two months before the India Street View mapping project began in late May, controversy over Google Street Views erupted yet again. This time in Switzerland where, in response to a complaint filed by Switzerland's data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thuer, claiming that Google's face blurring software wasn't 100 percent effective, the Federal Administrative Court in Bern ruled on April 4 that complete anonymity for its citizens must be guaranteed.

Google has appealed the ruling in higher court, but unless the Swiss Federal Tribunal throws out the lower courts decision, Switzerland may be the first country in which Google's Street View is ‘turned off' anywhere in the world.

Google Street View Technology

Google Street View is a web-based geographic photography program that lets you explore places around the world through 360-degree street-level imagery. When it made its debut, many people, tourists and business owners alike found it to be a wonderful way to check out a local business, restaurant, hotel, museum, or park.

Wonderful that is, until they recognize themselves or someone they know engaging in an activity they'd prefer not to be seen doing. Parents too, became concerned about their children showing up in Street View when images of their houses were displayed.

As incidents like these became more publicized in the US, people began to wonder if their right to privacy has been violated.

US Privacy Law

Despite the fact that Google Street View makes it entirely possible to disseminate a person's image online without their knowledge, Google does not violate privacy law in the US because under current law, there is no expectation of privacy when a person is in a public space and that the risk of surveillance is assumed.

For example, if someone is photographed walking into a hotel hand in hand with a person who is not his or her spouse and it's captured on Google Street View, a claim of invasion of privacy could be filed against Google in a court of law, but the plaintiff would not win the case.

Nonetheless, Google did make some changes to protect people's privacy and began blurring faces of images taken after May 13, 2008. Google also accepts requests for further blurring of specific images. 

A few cities like North Oaks, MN, where the streets are all privately owned, have requested that Google to remove them from Street View. Google has honored that request, but for the most part Google Street View images remain online and visible to the public.

Although private citizens don't have much say in whether their face shows up in Google Street View or not, in matters of national security the federal government has the last say. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security delayed Google Street Views of streets in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area due to the fact that some of the images may have been taken in security-sensitive locations and in 2008. In that same year, the Department of Defense requested that Google be banned from publishing Street View content of U.S. military bases and that it remove existing content of bases, which it complied with.

Privacy Concerns in Other Countries

Switzerland is not alone in its concerns about privacy. It joins 27 other countries, including Australia, the UK, South Korea, Germany, and Canada that have expressed similar concerns and in fact, went so far as to say Google had broken their privacy laws. Google Street View was temporarily banned in Austria and Czech Republic due to privacy concerns.

As Google continues to expand its Street View mapping technology, countries around the globe will be examining how Internet technology affects a person's right to privacy. It may very well be that the Internet will be the governing force in changing privacy law in the US and elsewhere.

Stay tuned…