Google’s Street View - a violation of Canadian Privacy laws?

There have been serious concerns expressed with respect to Google’s Street View and whether or not it violates Canadian privacy laws. Canada’s privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddard states that the high resolution images available on Street View are clear enough to allow individuals to be identified and therefore considered personal information under PIPEDA. Of particular concern is the fact that the images are taken without the knowledge and consent of the individuals contained within them, which are basic requirements of the Act.

Public opinions on this issue seem to vary greatly. Many people have said that they feel violated at the possibility of being identified on Street View without their consent and knowledge, while others believe that there is no violation and should be no expectation of privacy when in public.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that there is no difference between the images available on Street View and those taken by ordinary individuals with their cameras and cell phones and then placed on Facebook and/or MySpace for example. These photographs which are placed on the internet undoubtedly contain images of other individuals which are then viewable on the internet without their consent or knowledge. Similar arguments can be made of a photograph of a crowd in a newspaper or crowd footage on television during a sporting event. In addition, the new Youtube phenomenon is yet another example which does not appear to be inkeeping with the privacy rights outlined in the Act.

However, does this mean that a line should not be drawn somewhere? Many individuals have posted comments expressing their dislike of the concept and strong feelings of violation at the thought of identifying images of themselves being posted without their knowledge much less consent. Therefore, it cannot be denied that members of the public believe that their privacy rights are being violated with Street View.

Google offers that individuals can request that any images of them be removed. However, Stoddart states that this option would not be sufficient to satisfy the Act since inidivduals will not become aware of the presence of their images on Street View until they are already made available, by which time their privacy rights have already been violated. In addition, it was argued that many individuals may never become aware of the fact that their images are present on Street View.

I agree with Stoddart on this point. If it can be said that Street View images violate privacy laws then the option of requesting that it be removed is far from satisfactory since the purpose of the Act is to prevent violaton of privacy rights and many individuals may never know of the presence of their image or only become aware after the violation has already occurred.

One may also argue that the potential for violation of privacy rights in the name of Street View is unfounded and unnecessary. The privacy commissioner noted that it is simply the clarity of the images which create the potential for violation. It was noted that satellite or low resolution images are not a concern. In an effort not to stunt the availability of the latest technological advances, high resolution images can still be used without making available the images of individuals who happen to be around at that time. If images of individuals can be removed upon request, then clearly images of all persons can be removed, blurred or altered such that they are unidentifiable.

Although there are many analogous situations which appear to be perfectly legal these are also some of the time questionable in themselves. The concept of privacy needs to evolve with the availability of technology, however, it also heightens the need for its protection. I do believe that lines should be drawn on what images are made publicly available without a person’s consent and knowledge. If not, then there is the potential to keep pushing it farther and farther. Google’s Street View though it provides the public with convenience and accessibility can continue to do so without the potential of violating the privacy rights of individuals. The availability of clear identifying images though appealing does not seem to justify or even be necessary for the provision of its services. In addition, the fact that many individuals have expressed feelings of violation though in public shows that there is basis for concern with respect to the privacy rights of individuals.