Several months ago, web giant Google unveiled the latest feature of their popular mapping website, Google Maps. Street View allows users to get a panoramic view of selected locations around major cities in the United States. Now it’s being suggested that Canada is next on the list for this feature, and there is controversy brewing.
There have been complaints about the existing Street View images; that certain images of a private nature have inadvertently been put on the internet by Google. Among the controversial images are views into homes through open windows, people mooning the camera, and people with their underwear peaking out. Others complain about revealing information, such as Street Views showing groups of people entering or exiting places of religious worship, and vehicles with their license plate numbers visible.
But is Street View legal, or is it invading people’s privacy? So far, in the US, it seems as though no one has been able to (or tried to) stop Google from showing any photos in Street Views; although Google has voluntarily removed a number of images from Street Views which show controversial subject matter. The argument is the same as that used by the paparazzi: The photos are taken from vehicle-mounted cameras on public streets, and any photographs of something visible from public places are not subject to privacy. In the US, private investigators have been taking photos like this for years – so have the police; but neither group has generally been putting photos on the internet for public consumption.
Google may, however, end up censoring certain images when it starts printing Street Views of Canada. David Utter suggests that it is less legal and more political reasoning that leads to this decision, as Canada has a government official in charge of privacy, unlike the United States. However, there are legal differences between the US and Canada. In Canada, there is some obligation on the part of a business which is disclosing personal information to obtain consent, and it is suggested that some of the Street View images could constitute personal information based on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act.
It is an interesting question as to whether Google should be obligated to censor its street view images. Any one of us could go down to any public street and see people walking down the street, cars with license plate numbers, or someone standing on their balcony; we could even take a picture. But should this be catalogued and available on the internet? It’s one thing to have a choice in the matter; to be shown a photo and asked if one authorizes Google to use the image; it’s another to take the photos relatively secretly, and post them on the internet without any word. We all know that we’re on camera dozens of times a day when we walk around – mostly security cameras for various businesses; but the records of those cameras are not published, or intended for publication.
It seems relatively invasive to allow a company to post photos of one at their place of worship, or getting the mail in their pajamas, or of their license plate numbers compared to the benefit to Google of including such images (I can’t see any real benefit other than avoiding the work involved in cleaning the images up). Google has suggested they may blur faces and license plates for Canadian images, but I can think of a number of circumstances in which a person standing in front of their home or other identifying location could be identifiable just by their placement; this blurring may not be sufficient to protect the privacy of Canadians. But on the plus side, Google is acknowledging privacy rights, which is an important starting point, which will hopefully lead to less a less invasive Google Street Views.