Monday, April 06, 2009

Google Earth's Street View: Public Boon or Privacy Invasion?

Google Earth is, simply put, an attempt to put the earth online in maps and photographs. Lately they have been adding "street views" taken by camera-equipped cars that roam the streets taking 360-degree photographs for display to anyone who types in the correct address, or latitude and longitude, or any number of other ways to indicate location that Google can figure out. While distributing scenic views of public places is nothing new, the novelty of Google's approach is the sheer scale of what they're doing combined with extreme ease of accessibility.

Some folks in the English town of Broughton thought it all a bit much when the Street View car showed up on their roads recently. As the online Times of London explained, resident Paul Jacobs saw the vehicle from an upstairs window, got mad, ran down to the street, and stopped the car. Residents were already anxious about a number of burglaries in the prosperous area, and this was the last straw for several of them, who formed a human chain and blocked further access to their town. The Street View driver eventually turned around and left, and so Broughton is one of the shrinking number of places that you can't see up close and personal on Google Earth.

I just checked to see if my own little side court in this midsize Texas town had been visited by Google Earth, and indeed it has. I can't tell exactly when, because I don't put a big sign out in the front yard every day with the day's date on it. But from certain vehicles parked in driveways I can tell it's within the last two years, and maybe more recently than that.

Would I have objected like Mr. Jacobs if I'd been here when the truck came by? Being natively technology-friendly, probably not. I might have gone out to talk with the driver, but only to ask for technical details about the camera.

I first heard about the anti-Google-Earth mob on a radio talk show focused on privacy issues. Although Google has a way for individuals (or nations, for that matter) to request that certain images be blurred or removed, this is an "opt-out" process, which builds in a bias toward display that an "opt-in" process would not have (if you had to ask Google specifically to put your street on their system, they wouldn't display nearly as many streets). What are the ethical issues involved here?

The first step in analyzing an ethical problem is to figure out who is involved. In the case of Mr. Jacobs, for instance, the concerned parties are him and his neighbors; Google; and the rest of the world. Already we've got a problem, in that rarely do ethical issues go straight from a small, local population to literally everyone on earth who has a computer with network access. I say rarely, but it's becoming more common these days as computer worms produced by small but influential outlaw groups affect millions or billions of people. Fortunately, what Google Earth is trying to do appears to be more benign, but that may be only because people of ill will haven't figured out how to take advantage of it yet.

Clearly, if what Google Earth presented was live pictures, there would be a much bigger problem. It frankly doesn't bother me much that a photo of my house taken some time in the last two years is online, but if it was live and burglars could just watch until they were sure no one was home, it would be a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, the potential now exists for someone (or something, in the case of automated malware) from any part of the world to use that information for inimical purposes, and there's nothing I can do about it until after it happens.

And that may be the best thing to do in such cases. I do not generally subscribe to the "precautionary principle," which says no new technology should be adopted until it is proven to be safe. It may be the best thing just to wait and see if anyone actually uses Google Earth's street-view feature in the commission of a crime, and then deal with the problems that arise. That's not too fair to the people who will be victims of the crime, but somebody has to go first, I guess. And to stray a little bit into the field of utilitarian ethics (a place I don't like to spend much time in), there is the advantage individuals get from being able to use Google Earth to, for instance, check out motels without going there, as I did a couple of weeks ago. So maybe this kind of good for a great number of people is worth the minor risks taken by, well, almost an equal number of people. That's the problem with utilitarianism, the math quickly gets out of hand.

As the same talk-show host pointed out, the Google Earth system is one more way of packaging ordinary people as a product. Far more likely than burglars, advertisers (or their software) will spend a lot of time studying street views. You can tell a lot about a person from looking at their house: income level, types of cars they drive, whether they need a new lawnmower, and so on. This is a use that isn't clearly objectionable, but isn't exactly what I had in mind, either.

So, as with so many other new technologies, we will wait and see what happens. I don't think Google Earth's photo cars will run into too many privacy-hungry mobs in Texas, but I'd be careful around Massachusetts and Vermont.

Sources: The online Times of London story appeared on Apr. 3 at The radio talk show was hosted by Dr. Katherine Albrecht (, whose work has appeared elsewhere in this blog as the head of a group concerned about RFID usage in supermarkets.


  1. I think it is privacy invasion. Think about it criminals would have a good grasp of run-away route and it would make their evil plans easier. People survived in maps alone, it doesn't really have to be zoomed in that close.

  2. I think google needs to take a look at why they are developing this technology. I like how you mentioned the motel example; Google should limit their street views to places of interest: hotels, theaters, museums, or even a train stations. People want to see points of reference to get there, to establish familiarity before they get there, and probably many other reasons. I don't see pictures of peoples homes and streets to be much of an advantage. Sure if you were trying to find someone's house you have never seen before it could be helpful, but why do you need that if you have an address that google earth or map quest can still pinpoint for you. You obviously have an address if you got to the street view in the first place. Google just needs to stay conservative about where the general public can access street views. I think it is definitely a privacy issue if people's streets are being put on the world wide web. As technology exponentially increases and evolves, our privacy decreases constantly. We need to put reigns on technology that is creeping in our backyards; nevertheless I am all for these technological advances. In fact, now I am wondering how their cameras work; I wish I saw their truck so I could ask them.

  3. One other use: the areas of town where my parents and other relatives grew up in the 1930's are rough places now. I'd be worried to go visit their childhood homes in person, but I can do nearly the same thing online, in complete safety.
    If I do choose to go visit anyway, I'll be familar with the areas,and won't drive around aimlessly. (and it a home has been replaced by a parking lot, it saves me a trip!)

    And since the photos are of unspecified age, I'm more comfortable with them being available. Besides, is a low-life burglar going to bother to plan an escape route with Google Earth???