Google Street View privacy concerns

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Privacy advocates have objected to the Google Street View feature, pointing to photographs that show people leaving strip clubs, protesters at an abortion clinic, sunbathers in bikinis, cottagers at public parks, people picking up prostitutes and people engaging in activities visible from public property in which they do not wish to be photographed and have published online.[1] Google maintains that the photos were taken from public property. However, this does not take into account that the Street View cameras take pictures from an elevated position, enabling them to look over hedges and walls designed to prevent some areas from being open to public view. Before launching the service, Google removed photos of domestic violence shelters, and it allows users to flag inappropriate or sensitive imagery for Google to review and remove.[2] When the service was first launched, the process for requesting that an image be removed was not trivial.[3] Google changed its policy to make removal more straightforward,[4] but has since removed the option to request removal of an image, replacing it by an option to request blurring of an image. Images of potential break-ins, sunbathers, and individuals entering adult bookstores have, however, remained active and these images have been widely republished.[5]

In Europe, the creation of Google Street View may not be legal in all jurisdictions. Some European countries have laws prohibiting the filming without consent of an individual on public property for the purpose of public display.[6]

Google Street View censors photographs containing car number license plates and people faces by blurring them, with this kind of censorship being defended on privacy and anonymity grounds.[7]

United States[edit]

Google Car in Hunters Point, Queens on June 4, 2009

Google delayed the release of its Street Views of the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area following concern expressed by the United States Department of Homeland Security that some of the images taken might be of security-sensitive areas.[8]

The Department of Defense has banned Google from publishing Street View content of U.S. Military bases and asked Google to remove existing content of bases. Google has complied with this order.[9]

Aaron and Christine Boring, a Pittsburgh couple, sued Google for invasion of privacy. Street View made a photo of their home available online, and they claimed that this diminished the value of their house, which they had chosen for its privacy.[10] They lost their case in a Pennsylvania court. "While it is easy to imagine that many whose property appears on Google's virtual maps resent the privacy implications, it is hard to believe that any – other than the most exquisitely sensitive – would suffer shame or humiliation," Judge Hay ruled.[11] Since then the decision was reversed in part and on December 1, 2010 Magistrate Judge Bissoon ruled that Google is an intentional trespasser[12] and the company was ordered to pay $1 to the Plaintiffs.

In September 2007, a Street View vehicle took a picture of a house on fire in Gibson, Arkansas.[13] In August 2008, the people who lived in the house asked Google to remove this picture.

Some cities in the United States where all streets are privately owned have asked Google to remove Street View images because their consent was not given. North Oaks, Minnesota may have been the first. In that case, Google complied.[14]

In 2010, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stating that Google's admitted downloading of private wi-fi data constituted a violation of the US Wiretap Act and the Federal Communications Act. The FTC decided not to take up the complaint.[15]

Documents subsequently obtained by EPIC under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) indicated, despite a request from Congress, that the FTC did not examine Google's data from private wireless networks before dropping the case.[16] EPIC filed an administrative appeal with the FTC, challenging its decision, and in May 2011 EPIC filed a suit against the FTC for access to the documents on which the FTC's decision was based.

Argentina[edit]

In Argentina Street View cars started taking pictures four years later than originally planned. Initially, Google planned to start collecting images on the same day as in Brazil but they didn't get government permits. These permits were obtained in September, 2013. One day after Google Street View cars started taking pictures a lawyer from La Plata tried to stop them in his city[17] but on October, 4, 2013 justice dismissed his plaint.[18]

Canada[edit]

While Canada, like other jurisdictions, has raised the issue of privacy concerns regarding Google Street View, the presence of Google cameras in one Canadian city in March 2009 gave rise to a different complaint. Les MacPherson, a columnist with the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, complained in a March 28, 2009, column that the timing of the imaging, at the end of a protracted winter season and before the true onset of spring would cast an unfavourable image of Saskatoon and other cities. "What worries me more than any loss of privacy is the prospect of presenting to the world a highly unflattering impression of Canadian cities. With the possible exception of Victoria, they do not show off well in the spring. Google could not have picked a more inauspicious time to do its scanning. Saskatoon is unfortunately typical. For Google to record its images of the city at this most visually unappealing time of year is like photographing a beautiful woman who has just awakened from a six-month coma," he wrote.[19] In early October 2009, the first Canadian cities began to appear on Street View; several, including Saskatoon, were not included in the initial roll-out. One city that was included, Calgary, included images taken in both summer and winter. Images of Saskatoon were rolled out on December 2, 2009.

More recently[when?], several areas have had their pictures re-taken, for example, Toronto. Toronto's old images appeared to have been taken in late October, but these new images appear to have been taken in late March, April and May, as evidenced by images where school bulletin boards indicate the month.


Czech Republic[edit]

In the Czech Republic, Street View was banned in September 2010 by the Czech Office for Personal Data Protection after more than half a year of unsuccessful negotiation between the Czech Republic and Google. The Office described Google’s programme as taking pictures “beyond the extent of the ordinary sight from a street”, and that it “disproportionately invade citizens’ privacy.” However, pictures taken before this decision (mostly in 2009) may have remained available online but Google was obliged to erase every picture from that period should they be disputed.[20][21] In May 2011, the ban was lifted after the Google lowered the cameras by 30 centimeters.[22]

European Union[edit]

A recent demand from the European Union would require Google to warn local residents before sending out the cameras. It also requires Google to keep the not blurred versions of the photos no longer than 6 months, instead of a year. The practice shows though that even one year isn't enough to fix all the errors. Google was instructed to give advance notice online and in the local press before photographing.[23]

In 2010, Google announced that it might cancel Google Street View service in the European Union due to unmanageable requests of the European Commission.[24]

The Data Protection Directive says that digital information about identifiable people should not be published on the internet without consent from those people.

United Kingdom[edit]

Opel Astra Street View Car in Southampton, Hampshire

In the first days of launch the UK service drew criticism due to privacy.[25] Images were found of a man leaving a sex shop, a man vomiting and another man being arrested. Some images were removed including those of areas around Downing Street.[26][27]

The service drew criticism in Belfast that it represented a "reckless" security risk, particularly for showing the exteriors of army bases and police stations so soon after the killing of two soldiers in the 2009 Massereene Barracks shooting, and a police officer.[28]

Soon after the launch human rights watchdog Privacy International sent a formal complaint about the service to the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which cited more than 200 reports from members of the public who were identifiable on Street View images. Privacy International director Simon Davies said that the organization had filed the complaint due to the "clear embarrassment and damage" Street View had caused to many Britons. He said that Street View fell short of the assurances given by Google to the ICO in July 2008 that had enabled its launch, namely that privacy would be protected by blurring faces and vehicle licence plates, and asked for the system to be "switched off" while an investigation was completed. He said the few cases where Google's face blurring system had failed meant the data used by Street View would fall under UK Data Protection legislation, which requires that subjects give permission for the use of information concerning them.[29]

Davies subsequently sent an open letter to then-Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, accusing the company of briefing journalists against him, claiming Davies was biased in favour of Microsoft. Google has pointed to connections between Microsoft and data protection consultancy 80/20 Thinking, run by Davies, and has said that Davies' connections to Microsoft should be made clear in public, as the credibility of his criticisms is undermined by the fact that he acts as a consultant to companies who are direct rivals and critics of Google, a fact Davies rarely discloses in press releases or comments.[30]

However, on April 23, 2009, the Information Commissioner ruled that although Google Street View carries a small risk of privacy invasion it should not be stopped. They ruled that "There is no law against anyone taking pictures of people in the street as long as the person using the camera is not harassing people". They also ruled that Google Street View does not contravene the Data Protection Act, as an image of a house held on Street View is not a data protection matter, as data protection is about people's personal information.[31][32]

On April 3, 2009, it was reported in the press that residents of the village of Broughton in Buckinghamshire formed a human barrier to stop a Google car from photographing the village,[33] expressing fears that it was "invading the villagers' privacy" and "facilitating crime".[34] As also reported in the press, contrary reactions have come from some Internet users, who have called on people to "descend on the village to snap their own perfectly legal photographs".[35]

On May 21, 2009, Google Street's privacy issues got some attention in the tabloid press, after it was revealed that Google's facial recognition technology automatically blurred out the face of "The Colonel" on the shop signage of Kentucky Fried Chicken stores "to protect his privacy", despite the fact that Harland David "Colonel" Sanders, upon whose image "The Colonel" is based, died in 1980. A spokesperson for Google defended the decision as "it shows how good our facial recognition technology is".[36]

Denmark[edit]

According to a Danish media lawyer, Oluf Jørgensen, Google's practice of photographing people on private property is illegal. The Danish data authorities advised people who are photographed by Google, to turn Google in to the police.[37] However, since then, Google haven't had any legal problems and continued filming.

Germany[edit]

In an April 2009 interview for the German magazine Focus, Google's Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer remarked that "public opposition to Google Street View in Germany, though not hysterical, had been tougher than in any other country."[38] On the same occasion he stated that the project has now been "essentially aligned with the concerns of data privacy advocates," and that "specific privacy tools would be developed for the German launch while imaging continues at the fastest possible pace." The option to have specific images removed would also apply for locations in Germany.

German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Guido Westerwelle said "I will do all I can to prevent it."[39] However, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said that people should not get "hysterical" about the issue and called for "caution in introducing blanket rules allowing objections."[40]

As of October 2010, 244,237 German households have opted out Street View.[41] Google complied by blurring the façades on the corresponding Street View images. This procedure is misleadingly called 'pixelating' in Germany (German: 'Verpixeln').[42]

In April 2013 Google was fined €145,000 for illegally recording information from unsecured wireless networks.[43]

Greece[edit]

Google had been stopped from gathering images in Greek cities for its Street View service until it provides further guarantees about privacy.[44]

However, on January 18, 2010, the government legalized the service under the condition that the faces of people walking in the streets and the license number plates of cars be blurred, but allowed the publication of images of buildings without blurring the windows or other details.[45] The service is enabled as of June 2013.

Australia[edit]

Australia has no laws prohibiting Google Street View. But in October 2010, despite this, Google Street View ceased operations in Australia, following months of investigations from Australian authorities.[46] However on May 4, 2011, Google announced that they planned to begin production again[47] and on July 27, 2011 the Street View imagery for Australian towns and cities was updated.[48]

Japan[edit]

In Japan, Google Street View started in August 2008 and was made available for ten Japanese Prefectures in February 2009. The available Street View areas depicted residential and business areas, and showed the faces of pedestrians, displayed vehicle registration plates, and the name plate of a family residence (表札 Hyōsatsu?) – Google's decision to show these has led to disputes. Local governments, lawyers and individuals claimed Google was violating privacy.[49] On February 3, 2009, Google Japan representatives attended a meeting about privacy concerns held at a Tokyo Metropolitan Government facility, and agreed that privacy issues had not been adequately considered. Google pledged that, before taking photographs for Street View, they would in future notify the provinces' local government. Google Japan admitted that notifications and explanations of this kind had already been taking place in countries other than Japan, but had not done so in Japan as they were not aware of the potential privacy concerns.[50]

On May 13, 2009, Google Japan announced that it would modify their cameras to scan from a lower height of 2.05 meters above ground level, 95 centimeters lower than the original height of the camera head. The new height is intended to avoid having cameras view over fences in front of homes and into homes. This reduced height is to apply immediately, and all areas previously visited will be rescanned from the reduced height. Scans taken at the original height will remain available until they are replaced with the new images.

On November 11, 2011, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued an administrative guidance to Google Inc. that its collecting activity of Wi-Fi data were against the law of telecommunication which requests secrecy of communication, and requested to delete the recorded data, to take measures of preventing of recording the communication data, and to let it known publically in Japanese.[51][52]

Hong Kong[edit]

Before the launch of Google Street View in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has taken the initiative to inquire into the Google Street View Project, to ensure that it complies with the provisions of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance in Hong Kong and to consider privacy issues that may arise.

Google declares that the Project does not intend to compile information about specific individuals whose identities can be ascertained. Faces of passers-by and car licence plates in the photographs will be unidentifiable because blurring technology is to be used. Also, there will be at least a three-month gap between image gathering and publication, to prevent the images being used to identify an individual's current whereabouts.

Google also assures the Commissioner that if anyone objects to any image of themselves, their cars, houses or children captured by the cameras, the related image will be removed.

The commissioner concluded that Google Street View does not breach Hong Kong privacy laws. But he will look seriously into any complaint made by an affected individual in accordance with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.[53]

Switzerland[edit]

In November 2009, Switzerland's Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner Hanspeter Thür announced that his agency would be suing Google because in Street View "numerous faces and vehicle number plates are not made sufficiently unrecognizable from the point of view of data protection".[54]

Lithuania[edit]

On May 2012 the Lithuanian State Data Protection Inspectorate (SDPI) refused permission for the Google Street View project to operate in Lithuania. The Transport Minister asked the Inspectorate to review its decision.[55] The decision was changed and Google took photos of streets in Lithuania[56]

India[edit]

Google started taking Street View images in Bangalore, India, on May 26, 2011. A Google executive promised that they would do their best to avoid security concerns.[57] However, on June 20, 2011, Street View was blocked in Bangalore due to security concerns from the police in Bangalore.[58] Google officials and leaders from BJP, the ruling party in Karnataka, organized a meeting on July 19, 2011, to continue Street View in Bangalore. The Google officials, however, failed to convince the leaders that they would not violate any privacy laws.[59]

Poland[edit]

On May 2009 the Polish GIODO (Główny Inspektorat Ochrony Danych Osobowych - Chief Inspectorate for the Protection of Personal Data) expressed doubts about Google Street View and its privacy, mostly concerned about the same issues as in another EU countries. However, from 2010 onwards, Google cars appeared on the Polish streets with the consent of state authorities and in consultation with the Ministry of Sport and Tourism.

In 2011 GIODO began monitoring service Street View and published the report which included non-binding demand that Google should clearly communicate and warn when it's going to take pictures in a certain area at a certain time. It was also proposed that car drivers should be added to the records of persons who process personal data in accordance to the Polish law.[60]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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